According to Mike McGinn, executive director of America Walks and former mayor of Seattle, walking is not just about sidewalk infrastructure, but how we express ourselves as a community and move about that community with dignity.
Check out TransLoc’s 2021 poll analyzing Americans’ public transportation expectations and behaviors post-pandemic in our Transit Value Index Survey!
Episode 134: This Is Going To Take Persistence
Cohen: Josh Cohen
McGinn: Mike McGinn
F: Female Speaker
Cohen: From his role as both a community advocate and an elected official, Mike McGinn shares the secrets that are necessary to bring about change in our communities. He even makes a special offer for those who are ready to take the next step in serving their communities, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement, where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo, all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.
Cohen: Our guest today, Mike McGinn, got his start in local politics as a neighborhood activist pushing for walkability. From there, he founded a nonprofit focused on sustainable and equitable growth, and then became mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2013. Prior to joining America Walks as executive director, Mike worked to help Feet First, Washington State’s walking advocacy organization, expand their sphere of influence across Washington State. Welcome to The Movement, Mike.
McGinn: I’m glad to be here.
Cohen: All right. Let’s get started here. I touched on it a little bit there, that you were a longtime advocate. Or excuse me—well, advocate, yes, true, but also activist before your time as an elected official. And I’m curious how that experience sitting in the mayor’s chair impacted how you’ve done advocacy and activism after that.
McGinn: That is interesting. I guess the first thing I would say is that when you’re an advocate pushing government to do something, you think that it has an effect—right—like that your advocacy means something. But then when you’re in the mayor’s office, you know it matters.
McGinn: I think that’s one of the things I really like to tell people, is just how important it is to do it, even with your friends and champions. Don’t count on the elected official to be able to carry the ball just because you got him in office.
So, I’ll give you an example. I did townhalls all the time. And I was not supported by the political establishment of the city or the Downtown Seattle Association or the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I was really viewed as a political outsider, so I really felt like I needed, you know, as much grassroot support as I could get. And I also was trying to go over the heads of the media because they’re so influenced by those political insiders in how they report the story, so I was trying to go to the public as much as possible. But when you get out in public, you need your supporters to come to those townhalls too.
Cohen: Oh yeah.
McGinn: So if I was at a townhall—and I was—where, you know, people were angry about a bike lane, and there were a hundred people there convinced that the bike lane was going to be, you know, the end of their neighborhood for some reason, you really needed the bike advocates to show up too. Because when the city is doing something to your community, it’s very easy for people to generate outrage at the city. If it’s a debate between neighbors as to what should happen in their community, it’s just a very different debate.
So, I mean, I think that’s the very first thing I would say to people, is that it does matter. Turnout does matter. You know, engaging the debate does matter, even if it’s your champion. And your champion can’t go further than the advocates and expect to win. Right? You just can’t get out further than them and expect to succeed. So, you know, there were issues where, honestly, I was left of the advocacy community a little bit. I was trying to defeat replacing a highway on our waterfront with transit instead of a deep-bore tunnel. This might not be the best example, but, you know, major environmental organizations were so aligned in our state with the Democratic Party that they never really joined the fray because they were worried about upsetting Democratic Party leaders.
Another example would be looking at a street or, you know, wanting to make a change. But if there’s not somebody in the community pushing for it already, then you have a challenge. So I’ll just add one more observation. This is a really important observation that stuck with me. As between elected officials, you know, the agency, the bureaucrats, and the public, you need two out of three. So if I’m sitting there as mayor and I think, “Well, we should do this,” but my traffic engineer at the time says, “Well, we can’t do that because…” and the public isn’t advocating for it—
Cohen: Right. Yeah.
McGinn: —even if I feel really strongly that that’s the best outcome and believe I have the facts on my side, consider where I would be as an elected official if there’s no public demand for something I want or believe is appropriate, and I’m rolling the agency, so-called agency experts on it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.
Cohen: Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. I have two kind of quick things on that. One is that we had Christof Spieler, who is a former Houston METRO board member on probably early in the show, and one of the things—he echoes what you said about advocates kind of being in the room, even the supporters. And he even said, “It doesn’t even have to be an equal number.” Right? Just as long as you have somebody in the room, just to provide that counter to all of the negative nellies that might be there as well.
McGinn: That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. And it’s also, you know—there’s another question you might have asked, which is what’s the difference between being an advocate an elected official as well, and kind of learning that one. So if any listener is out there running for office and win, give me a call. I can help you out here with the transition.
McGinn: And I’m deadly serious about this.
Cohen: That’s really generous of you.
McGinn: Feel free to contact me. I’ll—on my afternoon walk, we can chat. But one of the things is when you’re an—is that the elected official—and it kind of relates to the question we were just talking about. As an elected official, it really is important that the public feel that you haven’t made up your mind before the issue has been publicly discussed, because then people start to feel like they’ve been left out of the debate; they never had a chance to be heard. And, you know, as a mayor, everybody thinks you’re really powerful. Now, you discover when you’re mayor you’re not as powerful as you think, or you’d like to be. There’s a lot of other players in the system besides the mayor.
McGinn: There are a lot of forces bigger than a city. But even so, within a city, a mayor is indeed a very—you know, has a lot of power compared to the average member of the public, and they really want to know they’ve been heard first. So if that public debate can occur without the mayor taking a position until it reaches a certain point, that makes life a lot easier too. But that’s not the advocate’s instinct.
McGinn: The advocate’s instinct is, “Let me push—you know, let me explain why this is an essential change, why we need to move quickly, you know, why nobody is taking this seriously enough; let’s just get this thing done.” And an elected official really can’t do that in the same way. They can still have values. They certainly should run on things, and they should—
McGinn: —complete the things they ran on. But—and that’s the source of the debate there, is the election season. But once you’re in office and a new issue emerges, you know, or one—or particulars around an issue emerge, you really need to let that public debate, you know, ripen a little bit before leaning in, particularly if you have a history as an advocate.
Cohen: Sure. I want to—so that was kind of the second thing I wanted to drill in on, and I’d love to maybe take what you just said and extend it a little bit farther, which is, you know, you mentioned you need to have two or three of those kind of key constituents with the bureaucracy, if you will, the agency, the elected official at the top, and then the community. I guess my question is, how do you know when the community has had enough of that say? Right? You know, you mentioned just right there, it’s like, well, the mayor can’t make up their mind yet. Right? You kind of have to let people—how do you know when to say, “All right, we’ve talked about this enough,” right?
McGinn: Yeah. And I don’t think there’s a real hard answer to that. You know, it’s dependent. And when I say you have to get two out of three, you know, you need a certain weight of it. You know, like the bureaucracy isn’t monolithic, the community certainly has diverse opinions. And, you know, if you’re on a legislative body—
McGinn: —you know, or, in my case, mayor, there were certain things that were within my purview; there were others I needed the city council to approve it too. So you’re really just trying to get sufficient weight in each one to move forward. Like, when is the debate enough is a great question because you can hear both—I gave you one side of it—
Cohen: Yeah, I’m sure.
McGinn: —which is, you know, “Oh, I wasn’t even heard. The mayor just—the mayor decided.” There’s a lot of that that goes on, too, even if you haven’t decided.
McGinn: Even if it wasn’t your decision, even if it was just a typical agency-level decision, people attribute it to, you know, the personal power of the mayor somehow. So there’s a lot of that that goes on, that, “The mayor has already decided how to do this, and he didn’t listen to me.” So I gave you one side of that. But the flip side is people go, “Oh, this process takes forever.”
McGinn: “There’s a huge line. We have to keep debating and debating.” And you can see that there’s a certain safety in that for elected officials, is what I was just sharing, you know.
McGinn: Like, you know, well, just a little more process. “If I can’t give a constituency the outcome they want, well, I’ll just give them some more process, and we won’t make a hard choice yet.” So that’s always a political judgment, and I think that in good times, when the public is happy—and that’s not today, by the way—but in such times, I think it’s easier for a politician to keep kicking the can down the road. And I think in harder times, when the public wants to see decisive action, then you need to take it. You know, just standing pat is a bad play.
So I’m not talking about it from the political side. From a personal side, as mayor, there were things I wanted to get done, and when I felt like we’d had sufficient process, I went and made a decision.
McGinn: And so I was something of a lightning rod of a politician, and maybe too much of that, honestly.
McGinn: But I felt like the urgency of climate and, you know, the necessity to really deal with inequality in our society meant that I was supposed to make decisions.
McGinn: But I was supposed to—but I really did take to heart the idea that I was supposed to listen first, and not just because of the politics of it, but also because you learn something.
McGinn: There was—I was always—I was always surprised at how much I learned in each townhall, even on an issue I thought I knew everything. Once you hear from people and hear their emotions and maybe hear some stories, there was still learning that occurred. And I—you know, the public did change my mind on things as a result of discussion.
McGinn: Or the public made me think about it differently than I had before, which led to it being implemented in a different way than I might have first envisioned. So the listening was real and meaningful as well. You really—you have to listen, not just because you’re the mayor and that’s the best way to actually get to a finish line, but because you’ll get a better product if you do.
Cohen: Hmm. That’s a great point. Let’s transition a little bit to your work now. So you’re now the executive director of America Walks. It’s the nonprofit national organization that is leading the way in making America a great place to walk. And so, you know, from an advocacy standpoint, how do you share that story when walking infrastructure is so different throughout our country and even throughout one community? Right? You have some places that have absolutely no sidewalks.
Cohen: You have some places that have sidewalks that need desperate repair, and then you have some places that are, you know, just a sidewalk to nowhere that the developer put in, but then there’s no, you know, connectivity anywhere else. So how do you tell that story?
McGinn: Well, that’s been—so I’ve been in the job a little over a year now, and that’s been the big challenge. And I’ve been really working on trying to refine our narrative, our story. And “story” is the right phrase to use. I’m a big believer in the power of narrative, you know, storytelling narrative, you know, of change. And people’s personal stories matter.
McGinn: You know, there’s the story of self, there’s the story of us, and there’s a story of now. I’m now quoting from Marshall Ganz, noted organizer.
I think there’s a few different things. One is that walking is common to all of us, and there’s something deeply, deeply human about walking, which is helpful. And it’s not really about the physical activity of walking, I believe. I believe our mission is really about the dignity of individuals in their community, at the heart of it, that you should be able to move about your community, you know, under your own power, and safely, and more than safely, with a feeling of belonging.
And if you look at it through that lens, you know, walking as an activity is really an entry point to how do we build the types of communities we say we believe in. And that gets at the issues around mobility justice, the fact that as we know, you know, Black and Brown and Native Americans are more likely to, you know, die in pedestrian accidents; they’re more likely to have neighborhoods that are less walkable, you know, fewer crosswalks, faster streets. Or more likely to be harassed if they’re walking in a neighborhood outside of their own, or in their own neighborhood, you know, by the police or private security or even other members of the public.
So all of this, to me, fits under our mission. You know, mobility justice has got to be a piece of our mission. When we look at the built environment, which is what you were pointing to, you can look at the American landscape; no matter where you are, there was a place that was build around walkability. And it’s at the core of a small town. It’s in an old New England mill town, where even the mill owner could walk down the hill to the mill, although the mill workers were closer. You know, you can see it in big cities. You can see it everywhere. It’s there. There’s—it’s, you know, Back to the Future. You remember that beautiful, little—
McGinn: —small town, you know, with the courthouse square? That’s a classic Midwest thing. So it’s not an urban versus rural thing, although there is a suburban issue there too. But even in suburbia, we try to build places, malls or the like, which are little islands of walkability, because it’s great. We all love to be in places where other people are out and about and present. And, hell, that’s where we take all our vacations.
Cohen: Right. Right.
McGinn: Disney got it. Right?
Cohen: That’s a kind of running joke [INDISCERNIBLE]
McGinn: At the boardwalk, on the seashore.
McGinn: Right? We got to these European cities and go, “Why can’t we have that?” We go to Manhattan. We—like, it is so common, and it is present everywhere, but at some point in our history—I’ll keep going. The next layer you could see was kind of the transit layer, and a lot of towns and cities had what you’d call the streetcar suburb, and that allowed people to live close enough to downtown or the jobs that they could take a streetcar to their neighborhood. And then overlayed on that is the auto suburb. And you can see it, no matter where you go. You just drive right through the layers to the center of town.
McGinn: And what we need to do is remember how we used to build places like that. And by those—by the way, those walkable places had the capacity to have multiple different housing types within them.
McGinn: You know, there might be housing on top of the neighborhood grocery store or the butcher shop or whatever it was. And right next to it were other, you know, single-family houses or apartment buildings or the like. And people—these were mixed-income places where people were then walking distance of each other. Now we create big suburbs where there are monocultures of, you know, type. And we just need to go back to those old ways, and start letting those centers expand outwards again.
We need to really invest more in the transit that connects those places together, and we need to allow those places—you know, this is the other thing I want to start working on, and we are starting now at America Walks. Not only do we have to change unwalkable places to walkable places, which is a hell of a lot of investment in infrastructure, changing our streets, changing our zoning to allow—to get rid of all these huge parking lots and allow more mixed uses. Also need to allow more people to live in the existing walkable neighborhoods. Every city and town in America that is the premium location. And Seattle, you can see it, but you can see it in lots of other places. Time to break up exclusionary zoning and allow more people to live in those places.
McGinn: And we can’t have the wealthiest people in the country saying, “Hey, my neighborhood is great. Nobody else can live here, you know, unless they can afford a million-dollar-plus house.”
McGinn: That’s not, you know—I get it. That’s what they really want. But that’s not what America needs.
McGinn: And my kids and their kids and your kids and the people coming to our country and the people moving to the new town because they’re looking for a future, or they’re looking for a place that doesn’t discriminate against them—that still happens in America.
McGinn: Like, why can’t there be more small apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, backyard cottages?
McGinn: Hell, even the Cunninghams let Fonzie live over the garage. I mean, this is America.
Cohen: That’s right.
McGinn: Right? Why can’t we allow more people of different background to live in the same neighborhood together and allow more housing in it? And I think that’s the other recipe piece here to making the types of communities where people can move about their community more freely.
McGinn: The first part is allowing people to move into the community.
Cohen: Right, right, right. I love how you started that though, because you really took an assumption that I made, which is looking at walking as just kind of through this infrastructure lens. Right?
Cohen: And you kind of turned that a little bit on its side and said, “Well, first of all, this is kind of more of an emotional or a community kind of thing, before we even get to the infrastructure part.” And I think that’s so interesting because what that immediately drew to mind for me was how people look at dining. Right? It’s like, think about, you know, how we eat food as this communal kind of thing that we do together, and then of course we also have the drive-through, where you’re just shoveling it in on your way to soccer practice, you know, part of eating as well. Right? But that doesn’t engender the same amount of community as us sitting down to break bread together and as a neighborhood or as a friend or whatever. And I really appreciate that distinction because I think that’s a really, really important one, because no matter what the infrastructure is, you know, an organization like yourselves or anybody that lives here can help bring a little bit of that emotional kind of community side to walking there.
McGinn: Well, you know, public life begins on, you know, when you cross the threshold from your property to the public property. It’s, you know—it’s often a sidewalk. Right? And you do that. You know, and for too many people, you know, they’ve been given a situation where they—it’s, you know, onto the car onto the street; there isn’t even an option.
I love your point about eating, though. I’ve made the same point before. I love to go backpacking. Even if I’m in the middle of the wilderness with three or four other people, when it’s time for a meal, we actually sit closer together than we would ever sit.
McGinn: We’re designed to engage with each other in that way. And if you look at traditional settlement patterns around the world, you know, people want to live near other people, and they do so, you know, whether it’s a village or a town or a city, and the forms start to look the same. Right? It’s built around who we are. Now, the buildings don’t look the same. The building materials don’t look the same. But that’s another piece of, you know, if we look at who we are. No matter where you look in the world, people figure out how to take the materials close at hand and build housing for themselves. And again, they usually build it in some type of communal setting, so they’d have the support of each other. We’ve literally made it illegal for somebody to make a home out of the materials at hand. Right?
McGinn: In fact, this is the homelessness issue, to a great degree. Like, think about this. Like, to pitch a tent on a vacant lot somewhere is to invite a police interaction—
McGinn: —at some point. And to say, “Well, how about, you know, could I live in a communal setting? Could I live in a group house?” “No, only so many unrelated people can live together in the same house.”
McGinn: And so, no, you can’t have that, and you can’t have your single-room-occupancy hotel, attracts the wrong element; we’ve made that illegal. You can’t live in the industrial or mixed, you know, or the commercial zone. No people can live there. Yeah, even though there’s an empty loft there that you might want to live in. Right? We’ve done all of these things that, like, we’re just fighting human nature. And we’ve made being a human being, living in communities with others, literally illegal in places, in those ways. It’s not our intent.
McGinn: Right? It was always an intent about having certain standards about what a community should look like, but when you have this many homeless people and this many people excluded from economic opportunity or living a long commute away from the job, a service worker in a popular city who’s now, you know, taking transit and, you know, the walk to the bus stop or the bus stop is crappy—we’ve done all these things to interfere with our own innate sense about how to make something that is comforting and mutually supportive of each other. Like—
McGinn: I’m sorry, now I’m going on. But—
Cohen: Yeah, no, I—
McGinn: And we planned it all, and we planned it all, every one of those things, that bus shelter, the design of the road, the zoning.
McGinn: Somebody with a degree in planning, or maybe didn’t have a degree in planning, they just had a strong idea about how people should live, have managed to write the—you know, this is all—it’s the law. It’s not like—
McGinn: —some alien force descended upon us. We did it to ourselves with the best of intentions. Now we have to have the best of intentions to undo it.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, I think even those smart people that were involved in all those things, probably well intentioned, some of them, maybe not all of them, but I think sometimes I think where people get in trouble there is that they’re just looking at their own issue—
Cohen: —in a short-term environment, in a silo. So like, all right, well, you need to design a bus shelter. It’s like, well, you design a bus shelter in a silo without thinking about, well, what does this mean for, you know, how easy it is for folks who, you know, need a place to sit but the bus shelter doesn’t have a bench. Right? You know, it’s like, “Oh, well, I didn’t—that wasn’t in the spec.” It’s like, “Well, okay,” but, you know, if you’re not thinking about this from a long-term, a holistic standpoint, you’re going to get these, like, everybody kind of making these often well-meaning, but not always, decisions that are—you know, kind of lead us down this road.
McGinn: Yeah. And some—and, you know, and it’s hard. Right? And I’m glad we’re both dancing around a little bit the issue of intent, because we don’t want to be—because we recognize how much of this is unintentional, but some of it, you know, obviously—
Cohen: Some of it was, yeah.
McGinn: Redlining was intentional.
Cohen: Yeah, totally.
McGinn: Restrictive covenants were intentional. You know, there’s a layer of intent, oftentimes, as to where investments go in a community and the like. But many times it’s, as we’re pointing out, it’s, you know, everybody following whatever the logic is of their own profession or the logic of the politician in responding to things. And the result of all of those items is, you know, a worsening climate, you know—
McGinn: —worsening inequality, increasing pedestrian deaths. And you start to get to this point of, well, you can see the effects. So, what’s our responsibility when we can see all these effects? We’re now, in so many of these things, we’re in the realm of negligence, and we passed that into recklessness.
McGinn: On climate, we’re behaving in a reckless manner.
McGinn: And so you may not intend to make the planet unhabitable, but if you’re promoting, you know, pipelines and you’re promoting, you know, highway expansion, I think you’re behaving recklessly and we—you should, you know, hold yourself accountable and not be surprised if others hold you accountable to recklessly playing with the future. And I think we can say the same things about racial inequality. It’s—and obviously, a lot of us have, you know, over the years, have had our eyes opened to the amount of the way in which these systems work to generate and drive racial inequity. And it’s a terrible hot-button issue, you know. “How dare you excuse me of being a racist” is a frequent response when these things are brought up. But, at this point, when we kind of see wealth creation and who lives in good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods and who’s dying and being hit by cars, all of these things are—and by good and bad neighborhoods, I mean the value of your homes. You know, all of this stuff, or the value—or the quality of the infrastructure. Not the quality of the people.
But if when you look at all those things, you have to go, “Boy, if you can’t see it or you don’t want to make-believe it’s really there, then that’s negligent and reckless,” even if you had no intention to hurt somebody of another ethnic background or race.
Cohen: Yeah. You touched on mobility justice earlier, and you’re touching on some of the inequities right now. And certainly, one of the things that I’ve kind of really, over the course of the last couple years, started to see more research on and talk about, is the—you know, how these different neighborhoods, ones that are predominately Black and Brown or Native American, versus primarily White, and how the Black and Brown neighborhoods have higher temperatures—
Cohen: —less trees cover, less green space accessible to them. And so I’m curious how you can use some of those things that we talked about earlier, the community building part of kind of what you’re doing there with America Walks, but the infrastructure side as well. But like, how can we address some of these inequities with making it easier for folks to walk and move around?
McGinn: Yeah. Well, it’s, you know, these patterns are the result of very long periods of investment or disinvestment. So it will take persistence in changing our investment patterns, which is hard, which can be hard. Right? And obviously, places with more apartment buildings are going to have—you know, are likely to have fewer trees. But you can if you could invest in pocket parks. You could narrow the street. You know, because this is part of the problem too, is, you know, oftentimes these neighborhoods are more likely to have wide, fast, arterial streets. We could dedicate more of the street right-of-way to parking in neighborhoods with more apartment buildings. We could make the tree issues more owned by the city and less owned by the property owner. You know, a lot of those leafy-green neighborhoods are ones in which there has been, you know, exclusionary practices as well.
McGinn: So you have to look at changing those patterns, but this is something I noticed in, you know, in my position as mayor, which is there’s the agencies themselves become very used to, “Well, you have to deliver something to every neighborhood.” And that’s in tension with, “Well, there’s some neighborhoods that really need deeper, much, much deeper investments,” you know, to take care of them. So that’s an issue. And, you know, the other one that’s been in the news and been really apparent to those that have been looking at the issue for sometime is, you know, the location of highways.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Oh, sure.
McGinn: Highways went through, often, you know, poorer neighborhoods or Black or Brown neighborhoods. And that’s still going on today.
Cohen: Oh yeah.
McGinn: So you’re bringing in—you know, you’re bringing in a lot of pavement, and that pavement is going to extend to either side of the freeway. If you’ve ever noticed what’s next to freeways is often parking lots or underused buildings. It’s the least desirable building lot, is immediately—is frequently immediately adjacent to the freeway, in a more urban place. And that all contributes to that heating effect, as well as all those cars running down the roadway itself.
So, when you look at that, you know, the idea that we should start removing some of those highways, look at what’s happened in the process now. That was a prominent piece of what was proposed by the president, and it’s been taken out. And in the debate in Congress, what you see is—you know, and this is primarily in the Republican Party, but there are Democrats who’ve, you know, voted for the measures that have reduced that, those highway removal or highway lidding things, you know. Look, infrastructure is about building things, and it’s about building new things. And we now see an infrastructure package that is going to continue the status quo highway expansion we’ve been seeing. And it’s—if you asked the folks who voted for it, who, you know, who believe in highways, they’ll just go, “Well, we need to complete the projects that we’ve started.”
McGinn: “And there’s a lot of good projects out there.” Well, they don’t even say that. They say, “Well, we need to”—they don’t even tell you the truth, really. What they tell you is, “We need to maintain our roads and bridges.”
McGinn: Well, in that case, then say all the money should go to be to maintaining existing roads and bridges. A lot of this money is going to go to expansion. And then the other folks will tell you, “Well, it’s kind of hard to vote no against it, and it’s a 50/50 Senate. And, by the way, all the construction trades and contractors in my own district would like to see that, you know, and my local chamber of commerce is doing that, and I have good relations with the business community in my district, so we’re going to vote for that too”—even if you’re a Democrat.
McGinn: So what we’re left with is some small portion of Democrats now who are saying, “You know, actually, no, our priorities should be to restore the functionality of those neighborhoods that were destroyed by highways. That’s the equitable thing to do.”
McGinn: But they’re in the minority.
McGinn: And that same pattern can be seen even in a progressive city like Seattle, where, you know, the spending for the projects that are pursued by the chamber of commerce, you know, and the—you know, the construction trades and the port unions and the port businesses—yeah, here I am; a signature issue of my term was trying to not replace a waterfront highway with another highway, but instead replace it with transit. There was not a single other elected official besides one other city council member in Seattle who shared my position on that, from the governor to the legislature, to eight members of the city council. We needed to build another highway, and then we needed to bury it because we needed a magnificent waterfront because that’s what the Downtown Seattle Association wanted. So there was a fight between two different wings of the business community.
McGinn: The downtown development community wanted to—they wanted no highway. The port and business interests and construction unions wanted a new highway because, you know, we got to keep the port functioning. And this highway has nothing to do with keeping the port functioning, but they believe in highways. And their compromise was let’s bury it, even though it costs more.
McGinn: The idea that we should have instead put that money into making a more walkable place, investing in transit to get people north and south of the city into the city, it got like almost no political support.
McGinn: And that’s because we just—that’s the politics of this. And the politics has baked into it these inequitable outcomes, and we have not yet figured out how to break that. So, I’m just thrilled to have this job at America Walks. I get to talk to people like you about this, and I get to try to use whatever influence we have, you know, to weigh in on this. But it’s going to take a really big, concerted movement, ultimately, to—and the movement is underway. Let’s be clear about this.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure, yeah.
McGinn: Like, we’re talking about highway removal in a way we weren’t a decade ago.
McGinn: We’re talking about reparations and restoring neighborhoods that were destroyed in a way we didn’t talk about it 10 years ago.
Cohen: We’re talking—I mean, we’re certainly hearing people talk about dedicating city resources more equitably throughout the community, not just to every neighborhood, but saying, “No, we actually need to prioritize”—
Cohen: —“to this part of our community that’s been historically underinvested in.” And I’m hearing more of that than ever.
McGinn: We’re talking about breaking up exclusionary zoning. President Biden—you know, the White House put out a statement on exclusionary zoning, you know. And a decade, two decades ago, single-family zoning was viewed as a, you know, third-rail issue for a politician—you don’t want to touch that—and also an extremely local issue. And now it’s actually, you know—we had Trump vowing to defend the suburbs.
McGinn: Right? Like, American land use decisions have become national issues, and they didn’t become national issues because Biden, you know, just has a secret land use and transportation—although he does love Amtrak, we know that.
McGinn: But it’s not just because of that.
McGinn: It’s happened because there are just activists and advocates around the country, community leaders who are like, “We got to do something about this, for safety, for health, for climate, for equity, like what we’ve been doing is wrong, and it needs to change.”
McGinn: And it’s running against it, up against the status quo that’s really used to having just billions of dollars a year pumped into building the things that they like to build and that they believe are important. And, you know, we’re not winning that fight, but we’ve moved the line a little bit, and we got to keep working on it.
Cohen: You were very generous earlier, and you mentioned that if folks were considering running for an elected office, they could reach out to you and chat about that. Where can folks learn more about America Walks and/or contact you should they wish to serve their community in that way?
McGinn: Okay, well, America Walks, AmericaWalks.org. We’re easy to find. Mike@AmericaWalks; you can reach out to me there. I’m also @MayorMcGinn on Twitter. I’ve been tempted to change that Twitter handle, but it’s got a lot of followers, so I just, you know—
McGinn: So I haven’t—I’m not willing to lose it yet.
Cohen: Nah, you’re good, you’re good.
McGinn: So you can find me there as well. Follow me there, DM me there. And I am serious; if you’re somebody who has been—you know, my background was I wanted to build sidewalks in my neighborhood, and I was a Sierra Club activist and advocate. I wouldn’t say activist; an advocate is what I tend to go for because I’m not much of a throw-myself-in-front-of-the-bulldozer kind of guy. But I’ve always tried to work at that intersection of what the public demand and policy, like try to bring public demand to bear.
McGinn: You know, try to organize to bring public demand to bear, to get a better policy. If you’re one of those people that’s figured—they’re like, “Why is the world the way it is?”—and I was, and I got involved, and one thing led to another, and I started working on trying to get good people into office, and I started fighting regional ballot measures to build highways, and supported a parks measure to build new parks, and founded my own nonprofit. And then I ran for mayor, and it really wasn’t a plan; it was something that happened because I got involved. So if you’re one of those people that are just getting in deeper and deeper, and decide to run for office, yeah, I’m there for you. And if I can help you, we need more of you. Because if you leave it to the other folks, we’re going to keep getting more of the same; so if you want in, I’ll definitely help you. Feel free to reach out to me. I’ll give you my best knowledge.
Cohen: That’s great. Well, thank you so much, Mike.
Cohen: This has been a great introduction to not only your work as mayor of Seattle there, but also the work you’re doing now with America Walks. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time, appreciate your energy that you’re lending to this fight, and keep up the great work.
McGinn: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
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