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A closer look at PBOT’s new ‘Active Transportation Division’

Posted by on June 23rd, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Congressional Reception -9.jpg
Dan Bower, shown here in 2008,
is in charge of PBOT’s new Active
Transportation Division.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

As of July 1st, the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has completed a major organizational shift. As I reported back in February, the bureau decided to dismantle their Transportation Options division and fold it into a new, all-inclusive Active Transportation Division (AT). Back then I reported the move was done as a consolidation to save about $350,000 annually; but at a presentation about the changes last month, we learned that there were other reasons behind the move — and that it might actually help bicycling in the long run.

Dan Bower, who will manage the new division, said that when PBOT was faced with $16 million in budget cuts, it, “Presented an opportunity to ask questions.” Bower gave an overview of the answers to those questions to a packed crowd in City Hall as part of PBOT’s monthly Bicycle Brown Bag lectures on June 26th.

Bower said the move was made for three primary reasons: to save money through consolidation of management and programs; to improve communication and coordination of projects within the agency; and to squeeze more performance out of the transportation system (a.k.a. “asset management”).

In the past, biking and walking tasks were spread out among every division within the bureau’s org chart. This led to confusion said Bower. The new org chart shows Bower as manager of Active Transportation with three sections underneath him including; Projects and Funding, Programs, and Operations.

Here’s what you’ll find in each section (taken directly from PBOT document):

Projects and Funding (led by Mark Lear)

    Bicycle and Pedestrian Projects
    Funding
    Legislation
    Bike/Ped Coordination
    ADA Curb Ramps

Programs (led by Linda Ginenthal)

    SmartTrips
    Sunday Parkways
    Bike/Ped Safety Programs

Operations (led by Gabe Graff)

    Safe Routes to School
    Bike Share Operations
    Bike Parking
    High Crash Corridors
    TDM/TMAs (Transportation Demand Management/Transportation Management Associations)

Some of the major goals Bower touched on were improved communication and better transparency. One of the things that has plagued PBOT in the past few years is horrible communications. PR fumbles in Mayor Adams’ office (“sewer money for bike lanes”), and poor roll-out of projects that led to unneccessary controversy (SE Holgate buffered bike lanes), have hurt the ability for Adams to support bicycling and for PBOT to move forward on bicycling projects. The agency also lacks a clear blueprint for exactly how to move forward. The Bike Plan for 2030 is nice; but it’s a long look and it doesn’t guide us through more immediate projects and funding issues.

Bower made it clear in the presentation that they intend to create a short-term “strategic plan” for bicycling. The plan will help them identify projects, figure out how to get them done, find the money to do them, communicate why they’re necessary, and then, hopefully, move forward. Bower’s presentation said the plan would help the agency answer questions like: “What can we build and promote within our existing budgets?, What opportunities do we have? What do we expect to achieve?”

Paramount within this new approach, Bower explained, is transparency to the public. In the past, PBOT, led by Mayor Sam Adams, has been known to follow political whims rather than take a methodical approach to building a better biking city. “We don’t have a short-term strategic plan around biking,” said Bower, “You might hear that one day, we’re doing this, then the next day we’re doing this… We have to be able to answer, ‘How are those projects connected?’.”

Another big task Bower’s division is taking on is to identify all the existing and potential funding sources, then cross-reference that money with their plan of what needs to be built.

Mark Lear, a 16-year PBOT veteran with lots of experience around major projects and the inner workings of City Hall politics, sounded very optimistic about the new division. “This could be one of the more effective ways we’ve re-organized since I’ve been here,” he told the crowd last month. “I’m really excited.”

One key to PBOT’s success with this shake-up is that they must get better at telling the story of their successes. They have an amazing track record with Safe Routes to School, creating travel options for Portlanders, building out our neighborhood greenway network, and so on. Lear knows the agency must do a better job at leading the public narrative around transportation. “We’ve accomplished a lot, but our ability to tell that story, in a broad-based way to the community, hasn’t been as strong as it could be,” he said.

Another, more practical benefit of the re-org is the consolidation of the City’s bike parking program (that handles everything from bike lockers to on-street bike corrals). Under the new system, all bike parking inquiries and projects will emanate from one desk, instead of the public having to find a different PBOT contact for bike parking at schools, businesses, residences, and so on.

Looking toward the future, PBOT feels like this new, leaner, more efficient AT Division will be much better-equipped to handle what will likely be PBOT’s largest bike project ever — the Portland Bike Share system that’s slated to hit the ground in spring of 2013.

While it emerged from a need to cut costs, this re-org might leave us with a more effective PBOT in the future. Let’s hope I’m right.

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