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PBOT Director Tom Miller lays out perspectives on politics, bicycling

Posted by Patrick Croasdaile (Contributor) on April 14th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Miller addressed the BAC on Tuesday.
(Photo: Patrick Croasdaile)

Tom Miller, the former Chief of Staff for Portland Mayor Sam Adams who was appointed Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) back in January, formally introduced himself to the Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) on Tuesday night.

His words offered a striking contrast from his predecessor Sue Keil (and in some regards, his boss, Mayor Sams Adams). He spoke of the bureau's communication missteps, his intentions to put forward bold ideas and the political realities that those ideas will have to overcome.

"I think that recently the bureau has suffered and consequently the perception of bicycling has suffered... The bureau needs to own up to the fact that we haven’t managed communication as effectively as we needed to."

Miller indicated to the committee that policy development would be central to his tenure at the bureau. He was quick to say that while he was passionate about transportation, policy creation and sustainability were what drove him most; "I'm interested in finding a balance for human existence, that’s the core of what makes me tick." Miller added that traditionally and presently, "policy development within PBOT has been murky, and that needs to change."

Regarding the impending changes at PBOT, Miller was remarkably frank:

“I have to be honest, I think that recently the bureau has suffered and consequently the perception of bicycling has suffered. A large part of this was the lack of effort the bureau has placed on communications. I believe very firmly that PBOT has done very well for bicycling in previous years, but its gotten tarred-and-feathered for it as well. The bureau needs to own up to the fact that we haven’t managed communication as effectively as we needed to."

[Publisher's note: Read more about PBOT's communication problems in our 2010 overview of Mayor Adams and in the interview with him we published yesterday.]

"Some of the things we are going to propose will be controversial... but I think they are necessary to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves."

To improve bureau communications, one of the first things Miller plans to do at PBOT is bring in a dedicated communications director (a position they haven't had since 2006). "I come from a policy background and I want to be clear that on my watch, the transportation bureau is speaking very clearly about why it’s operating the way it is."

On the matter of where bicycling infrastructure in Portland is headed, Miller is a solid supporter of separated facilities. He is concerned that too many advocates and planners had been "shoe-horning" bicycling into an auto-centric right of way.

Miller believes that if Portland is going to continue on as the premier city for bicycling, it’s going to need to place greater emphasis on separated facilities such as cycle tracks. He pointed to the examples in Northern Europe where "separated facilities are consistently present in cities with 25% and above bike mode share."

To those interested in an auto-centric right of way, Miller had this to say:

"If you’re interested in what works for you, then advocate for the vehicular cyclist. I’m more interested in getting my neighbors and my wife riding a bike and I’ve tried every angle with them; I believe separated facilities are the only way to get the concerned cyclist riding more."

Transportaiton Safety Summit-22

Miller was very up-front about what the future might hold and what it would take to make his vision become a reality. "Some of the things we are going to propose will be controversial," he told the committee, "there will be things you’re not going to like, but I think they are necessary to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves."

Miller believes that in order to advance bicycling in a major way in Portland, there will need to be a large amount of politicking on its behalf; and getting politics lined up is a forté of Millers — he spent the last six years as Chief of Staff for Mayor Adams.

He pointed to the example of New York City. "New York has been very aggressive, and if you’re in my shoes, and you’re talking about a city that’s making big steps in making biking more mainstream, you have to be paying close attention to what’s happening in New York."

"Your transportation director understands bike issues. I know bicycling’s place in the urban context and I understand that bicycling has arrived."

But Miller maintains, and rightly so, that New York’s transportation culture and local political scene is vastly different than Portland’s. "I don’t think that the kind of change you’re seeing in New York is sustainable in Portland based on our commission form of government." He wants bicycling infrastructure improvements to move faster and he’s certain that it’s better for the community in the long-run. "It’s not why to do it or whether to do it, it’s how to do it. Political reality is my stock and trade."

Catching a brief word with Miller after the committee meeting, he maintained his belief that by clarifying how the bureau generates policy, the bureau will do better for the city. "The Portland effect [on transportation] is very real, but we have to be better about indicating what exactly that means to Portlanders as well as our city’s infrastructure."

According to Miller, the good news for Portlanders is: "Your transportation director understands bike issues. I know bicycling’s place in the urban context and I understand that bicycling has arrived."

But, given the state of local politics and the fact that Miller must first establish respect and credibility with PBOT's 700 employees, he doesn't expect major changes to happen overnight. "Time will tell what changes we bring to PBOT; I’m not going to turn it upside down right away."

Miller is set to officially takes the reins at PBOT on May 1st.

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Comments
  • Will April 14, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    refreshing read after the interview with Sam

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  • michael bogoger April 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    So when the day comes that cars are finally recognized as obsolete, there will be two redundant systems for bikes? Better than nothing, but very short term policy, all joking aside.

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    • Brad April 14, 2011 at 2:24 pm

      Agreed. The best approach would be to build some separated facilities along heavily auto trafficked multi-lane arterials like Barbur or Interstate that will likely remain that way even when fewer cars roam the roads. At the same time, use a combination of sharrows/education/enforcement on the majority of thoroughfares to establish bicycles as legitimate traffic. Then, when auto use is substantially down due to cost, fuel prices, lack of public interest, etc. you have a fully functional and well maintained transportation system without redundancies that will fall into disuse and disrepair.

      Another issue with separated facilities is the sense of entitlement that the tax paying public will have with them. In addition to bike traffic, they will also be crowded with walkers, runners, skaters, strollers, dog walkers, etc. (they paid for it too!) and that may well lead to conflicts with those users or a "speed limit" for bikes (like 8-10 mph) that negates the efficiency of using them for commuting. If a de-facto MUP with said speed limits comes to fruition, will bikes be legally allowed to opt off the MUP and take the auto road traffic lane?

      What concerns me most about Miler's approach is that he wants bike infrastructure to be inclusive for his wife and neighbors. While noble, is the goal more bike commuters to reduce auto loads, pollution, etc. or creating more casual recreational riders to fit the city's self image? I am uncertain of his aims.

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      • Patrick Croasdaile April 14, 2011 at 2:54 pm

        Brad, I don't believe Miller was talking about creating just "casual recreational riders." From what he was saying at the committee meeting, it would seem that he wanted his wife and neighbors to start biking more than driving in and around the city... for everything. I'm sure recreation is apart of this, but I believe he was talking from a more utilitarian perspective of biking.

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    • Spiffy April 14, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      the car facilities can be replaced with dedicated mass transit instead...

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    • matt picio April 14, 2011 at 10:13 pm

      The separated infrastructure could be repurposed for pedestrians, or made into ADA-only right-of-way, or dedicated to skateboarders. There are lots of possibilities. The end of cars is not an overnight thing - even if you accept all the tenets of Peak Oil, there will be a number of people who will be able to afford to gas their cars for some time - and those folk wield considerable political influence.

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  • velowocky April 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Curious to see how the separated bike facilities overture plays out in real world projects. Hope this means the NP Greenway, Sullivans Gulch and WIllamette River trail can expect to be fast tracked.

    I'm glad Portland is developing bike infrastructure on a number of levels (school programs, downtown cycletracks etc.) but sometimes I think we might get farther by focusing the attention on a few really ambitious projects and not spread our development resources too thin.

    From an average Joe taxpayer standpoint I think most people can see the importance of Springwater Corridor type facilities - even if they are not the most affordable option on the table. It's pretty hard to argue against the ultimate return on investment for the Springwater and Esplanade. Other big projects are no different. I guess we'll know a lot more soon enough.

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  • Frank Castle April 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I love what I hear. Cycle Tracks, or car-free bike lanes/paths/streets, are needed throughout Portland (My Portland includes NW+SW Portland, not just the gridded-out Eastside).

    It shouldn't be Cars vs. Bikes. I drive a hell of a lot, and I definitely get annoyed with slow bikers holding up traffic on the road...but I don't blame the biker so much as the city for forcing bikes onto the road with the cars.

    Share the road? You're asking for accidents. Split the roads up. Keep bikes in separate areas than cars. Everybody wins.

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    • spare_wheel April 14, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      you could lessen your annoyance by driving less.

      _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
      i hope that any new separated infrastructure does not box cyclists into a narrow obstacle-laden trough like the broadway cycle track.

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      • Frank Castle April 15, 2011 at 10:04 am

        I'd ride more if I could get more places on my bike without having to worry about a car hitting me as I ride. Go figure.

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    • matt picio April 14, 2011 at 10:14 pm

      Sharing the road is the only thing PROVEN to reduce accidents. Anything which forces drivers out of "on-automatic" mode and makes them alert is a positive force for safety.

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      • Frank Castle April 15, 2011 at 10:09 am

        What? Horrible argument. You are telling me it's safer to have bikes share space with cars then to have cars separated out from bikes? BS.

        If a car can't actually physically hit a bike (due barrier on cycle track) then your accident numbers go down.

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        • michweek April 16, 2011 at 11:54 am

          You do realize that you are contributing to the very problem that keeps you in your vehicle?? Be the change you want to see or quit whinning!

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          • Frank Castle April 18, 2011 at 7:36 am

            Get me a cycle track from my house off of Thompson Road in NW Portland to anywhere.

            And no, I won't "be the change" commute/errands-wise until I feel safe. Roads where cars dodge me or visa versa is NOT safe.

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  • mmann April 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    One of the things that struck me as unusual about the Sam Adams interview posted yesterday was no mention of Tom Miller. I almost commented on it. This helps. And if Sadik-Khan is someone he admires, we've got the right guy in there.

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  • Joe Rowe April 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Please call PBOT 503-823-5185

    Ask them to keep options open for a cycle track on North Willams. The project plan stage has just started. There is money to make it happen.

    I'm hearing the Mayor and BBOT director saying yes to cycle tracks. Yet...cycle tracks are being rejected by the manager of the N. Willams project: Michelle Poyourow. She should not be leading the opening meetings with such negative comments of cycle tracks. She should be unbiased, or at least mention the goals of city leaders.

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    • matt picio April 14, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      Cycle tracks aren't appropriate in every situation. The key to a healthy transportation system is variety - use whichever tool in the toolbox fits best, and get more people out there. Also, cycle tracks are a lot more expensive. With 1/5 of the traffic being bicycles, it's hard to argue people feel unsafe on Vancouver / Williams. The biggest issues are the leapfrogging buses, the potential of dooring, and the occasional right-hook.

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      • Joe Rowe April 14, 2011 at 10:47 pm

        oh boy! Did someone named Joe Blow suggest we have a cycle track in "every" situation? Nope. I don't see that suggestion.

        my name is joe rowe, and I suggested a cycle track should not be ruled out so early in a process by the so called leader of a process in a city where the mayor and top level staff want cycle tracks in appropriate locations.

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  • Dabby April 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    "He is concerned that too many advocates and planners had been "shoe-horning" bicycling into an auto-centric right of way."

    I am concerned that separated facilities for bicycling will be "shoe-horning" bicyclists into riding where they want us to, instead of where we want/need to.
    My point is that it will not be legal to ride on streets where there is a cycle track or separated facility.
    This will turn into a loss of the loophole allowing abandonment of the bike lane as well. And then to not being able to ride on some streets at all.

    Once again, Separation is not Sharing, and all this time I thought we were trying to "Share The Road".

    Guess not.

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    • Michael M. April 14, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      That's been one of my big, unanswered questions for a long time. I've never really gotten a sense of how many locals riding bikes really want to follow "the examples in Northern Europe where 'separated facilities are consistently present in cities with 25% and above bike mode share.'" I don't even know if I particularly want that as a model. And that model isn't about sharing the road as an individual user, it's about sharing public space collectively, so that bikes and cars and pedestrians and transit all have their dedicated spaces in the rights-of-way. It's less "Share the Road" than "Share the ROW."

      Clearly, there are many advocates pushing for that kind of development locally, and Miller seems to be one. But when I'm out riding, and see the way lots of different types of people are operating their bikes, and the types of bikes they're riding, and the speeds at which they're traveling, I wonder how happy they would be with the much slower, more cautious and deliberate styles of riding in those Northern European models. Maybe the swarms of new riders more comfortable with separated infrastructure will simply bury those concerns, but I get the sense that many of today's cyclists are in for a bumpy transition to the New World Order. Better ditch that fixie, track bike, or racer and get urself a nice upright heavy Dutch-style bike! :-)

      That's all an open question, for me, but I'll really be interested to see how it plays out. What's not an open question is how much it bothers me when politicians (and Miller seems like a consummate politician) talk about what their "neighbors" will or won't do or do or don't think. There are those politicians who understand that they are working for a whole city of diverse people with diverse values, interests, and challenges; and there are those who think their job is to impose the values and concerns of their "neighbors" (i.e, people who look, talk, and act just like them) on everybody else. Miller is sounding more and more like the latter.

      Of course, here in Portlandia, that means he fits right in.

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      • matt picio April 14, 2011 at 10:23 pm

        Tom Miller is definitely a politician, but in a good way - he's effective. And he "gets" bikes. Miller has worked extensively with the BTA, with Shift, Umbrella and other active-transportation groups to move projects along and facilitate the city's response. I was very happy to see him appointed, and I think once he has the lay of the land in the Bureau, we're going to see a lot of good things happen.

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  • k. April 15, 2011 at 8:41 am

    If political reality is Tom Miller's "stock and trade" than I assume he realizes he's going to have an extremely short tenure as PBOT Director? Only until the next election and Sam (and then Tom) get replaced. Don't get too vested in this guy.

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  • 'Hen April 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    From someone who was in the peanut gallery for Mr. Miller's often rambling talk, I would say that this post is a bit puffy if not overly generous towards the new PBOT Director. It was clear to me at least - and hopefully to the (also hopefully) savvy BAC members - that Miller has no clear vision for PBOT generally, no plan for how to move biking forward in this City specifically, and no experience managing a bureaucracy even a thirtieth of the size of PBOT. I understand him to be a true believer in cycling, and I find him to be a more compelling figure than his predecessor(s), but I have absolutely no idea what to expect from him. Said differently, I'm intrigued but not willing to hold my breath.

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    • k. April 18, 2011 at 8:57 am

      Well said. This is much of what I was thinking and know to be true, but didn't take the time to spell out.

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