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PBOT looks to get back on track with PR moves and new ‘vision’

Posted by on December 12th, 2013 at 11:36 am

Dylan Rivera (on the left) is now PBOT’s Communications
Manager and a member of the Director’s Team.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Two recent moves by the Portland Bureau of Transportation show that the agency wants to fix its past PR woes, tighten up its communications strategy and set a clear(er) course for the future.

On Tuesday, PBOT announced that existing media spokesperson Dylan Rivera (a former reporter at The Oregonian) would be the new Communications Manager for the bureau, overseeing a team of three staffers. They’ve also hired former Politifact reporter for The Oregonian Ryan Kost. And yesterday, the City published a request for proposals (RFP) seeking a consultant to help them create a two-year strategic plan that, “defines PBOT’s vision statement, mission statement and guiding principles.”

This is a big deal.

Anyone who has paid close attention to PBOT in the past several years knows that a major weak spot has been a lack of attention to PR and communications — two crucial ingredients for an agency whose success depends on changing the status quo.

One of the biggest debacles ever was the lack of PR strategy around former Mayor Sam Adams’ plan to front-load the Bike Plan for 2030 with $20 million from the Bureau of Environmental Services’ ‘Green Streets’ program. The idea — to coordinate construction of bike-friendly street features alongside complementary BES projects — had its merits; but it became controversial when the “sewer money for bike lanes” meme quickly saturated the local media and public dialogue. Then a few months later, PBOT rolled out buffered bike lanes on SE Holgate seemingly overnight without much warning to local residents or the press. After KATU-TV’s infamous “Bike paths to nowhere” piece aired, a revolt ensued from angry residents and PBOT found themselves mired in another quagmire of bad bike PR.

Much of the negative PR leveled at bicycling in the past few years wasn’t all due to PBOT’s lack of marketing and PR skills. Mayor Adams and his chief-of-staff-turned PBOT Director Tom Miller were lightning-rods of controversy for reasons that went way beyond bikes. But nevertheless, bikes became the political football and PBOT was usually on the losing side.

And it’s a fact that is well-known inside the Portland Building. In April 2011 then PBOT Direcor Miller said, “… recently the [transportation] 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… The bureau needs to own up to the fact that we haven’t managed communication as effectively as we needed to.”

Miller tried on two occasions to hire a top-level communications staffer, but bad politics trumped those efforts and newly-minted Mayor Hales put an end to Miller’s open PBOT public affairs job posting back in January. Then back in April, PBOT’s two former media relations staffers moved on, which set the stage for Transportation Commissioner Novick and PBOT Director Leah Treat to start fresh.

With a new mayor, a new commissioner-in-charge and new director of PBOT, Portland has the opportunity to turn the page. Right now PBOT finds themselves in a period of stagnation when it comes to moving forward with a vision for bicycling. With Dylan Rivera bumped up to a management-level position and the launch of a two-year strategic communications plan, PBOT is putting key pieces to the puzzle in place.

In a statement earlier this week, Director Treat said Rivera will become part of the PBOT Director’s Team — a team of high-level managers that before now didn’t have a communications staffer on it.

Rivera, a Reed College political science grad who hails from Austin, Texas, seems qualified for this important new role. He spent ten years as one of (in my opinion) the best reporters at The Oregonian. His coverage of transportation issues (including the Columbia River Crossing) was excellent.

The other major piece of this puzzle is the RFP that will help PBOT define their vision for the future. The agency currently lacks a cohesive, public-facing, short-term plan for how to achieve their adopted transportation goals. Our bike plan, for example, sets goals for 2030 — but what should do in the meantime to stay on track? Lack of such a plan, mixed with complacency and other factors, are major reasons why cycling has stagnated in Portland.

Here are a few salient excerpts from the RFP for a “Two-Year Work Plan”:

…the consultant will engage employees at all levels of the organization in this exercise; in essence a “vertical slice” through the organizational chart. The consultant will also engage the Commissioner in charge of Transportation, the Commissioner’s Chief of Staff, the Mayor’s Office and other key City Bureau Directors.

… The consultant will need to guide PBOT through an analysis of what processes and services it must do differently or not at all given the financial climate…

… The two year strategic plan will be a communication tool both internally and externally, so the consultant will be charged with crafting the message of how we will change focus in partnership with PBOT leadership.

With the tumultuous and controversial Adams-Miller era behind us, and a creeping complacency from years of “platinum-level” back-patting, PBOT needs a fresh start. Getting serious about a new strategic plan — and hiring the right people to help execute it — are very positive steps toward making that happen.

Stay tuned.

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Comments
  • Ethan December 12, 2013 at 11:39 am

    “Less stripes, more filling”

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Adam H. December 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    Hopefully this results in more protected bike lanes.

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    • spare_wheel December 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      vancouver has ~15 km of shiny new protected bike lanes but has seen little increase in mode share (3.7% — 2012). on the other hand, munich’s mode share increased 300% (~50% in the inner city) during a period in which it dismantled most of it’s protected bike lanes. imo, we need connectivity and allocated space (e.g. paint and stripes) far more than another km or two of north-american bike sidewalk (see the failed broadway and cully facilities).

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      • Jonathan Gordon December 13, 2013 at 9:44 am

        see the failed broadway and cully facilities

        By what measure have they failed? I’ve ridden and enjoyed both. In fact, recently the Broadway facility was temporarily closed and I was reminded how much less safe I feel when riding in traffic on that street.

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        • spare_wheel December 13, 2013 at 10:51 am

          the broadway protected bike lane has been “temporarily closed” for at least half a year. and even on the occasions that it’s actually open it’s frequently blocked by peds, cars, and buses. everyone i know who commutes the whole length believes the previous bike lane was a better facility. (a *real* cycle track or a buffered bike lane would have been an improvement over the previous bike lane.)
          moreover, after being nearly killed by a right-hooking garbage truck at the terminus i now ride in the vehicle lane every commute. (and it’s simply awesome that motorists in this city still treat me with respect even though i violate the “law” every morning.)

          cully is a textbook example of how not to do separated infrastructure. the barrier of parked cars that obscure visibility and greatly increase right hook risk was completely unnecessary and the pointless s-curves were *designed* to slow down and inconvenience cyclists. i’d estimate that ~50% of cyclists riding cully bypass the meandering bike sidewalk (especially on the downhill sections).

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  • wsbob December 12, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    First thing to do: get a better picture of Rivera, because the one accompanying this story is lousy. The strange, pink cast it gives his face is just one of the things about the pic that’s likely not going to suggest this is someone that can effectively and positively communicate to the public, the plans and activities of a major city’s transportation dept.

    News, ASAP, about what ideas this guy has in mind to help the transportation dept rally from the public, more support for its efforts, would be great.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 12, 2013 at 1:52 pm

      your wish is my command wsbob. ;-)

      Recommended Thumb up 3

      • wsbob December 12, 2013 at 2:52 pm

        Maus…this picture is much better than the first was. In it, he looks thoughtful, maybe about ready to break out in a smile.

        Oh…I have many more wishes, anytime you’d like to fulfill them as well…just joking of course…thanks for the picture change.

        Looking forward to something from PBOT that indicates solid but adventurous ideas and efforts to move towards enhancing the usability of the city’s streets for travel. Changes NYC’s Janette Sadik-Khan’s has helped bring about in her city, are very impressive.

        City’s need new ideas to accommodate changes that sustain their vitality. They also need staff that can help the public understand new ideas presented, and inspire people to recognize and support benefits that can be realized by changes based on new ideas.

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      • Alan 1.0 December 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm

        Good change. I was personally surprised at my own gut reaction to the first picture; it was not favorable. I’ll try to keep an open mind on PBOT and Rivera but some bike-friendly results are due.

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    • q`Tzal December 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      I don’t usually get the creepy vibe off of photos but that picture was not beneficial to his employment future.

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  • Jeff Bernards December 12, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    At the end of the day it’s substance not PR that will make projects viewed positively by the public.

    Recommended Thumb up 10

    • q`Tzal December 12, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      And unfortunately we need a skilled PR professional to communicate the substance and validity of PBOT’s projects to the public in a way that can’t easily be sound byte reshaped to enrage the public against a project they would normally support 100%.

      Too often recently we’ve seen financially powerful interests reframe accurate science and economic data to mean the exact opposite of what the data actually says. It’s a dirty game but unfortunately we will have to wrestle this pig in the mud.

      Recommended Thumb up 8

  • dwainedibbly December 12, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Hopefully PBOT can help get the message out that better infrastructure for bicycling means more people on bike and fewer people in cars, to the benefit of those who are still driving.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • paikikala December 12, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    What’s wrong with the current mission statement?

    Our Mission Statement

    The City of Portland Bureau of Transportation is a community partner in shaping a livable city. We plan, build, manage and maintain an effective and safe transportation system that provides people and businesses access and mobility. We keep Portland moving.

    Sounds more like busy work, ‘look we’re changing’ stuff. My mom always said ‘actions speak louder than words.’

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Anne Hawley December 12, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Someone’s doing something right with the @PBOTInfo Twitter account: updates on weather related transportation issues, reminders (with photos) of maintenance work in all weathers, quick stats about de-icing, signal outages and reports on progress fixing them. It’s a drop in the PR bucket, but it has done a lot to mitigate my own sense that they’re stuck and doing nothing.

    Public relations is important. “Mind-share” is important. I think this hire is a very good move on the City’s part.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Hart Noecker December 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    My initial response was going to be ‘talk is cheap’, but knowing where the money goes, this talk will likely cost lots and lots of money that could have otherwise been spent on infrastructure.

    Our stagnation has not come from a lack of vision, it’s come from a lack of political will. Certainly PBOT needs better communication of why bike/ped infra is so crucial, but unless they’re going to start standing up to the PBA sometime soon, I don’t see much moving forward in any serious sense. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • Todd Hudson December 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      People at BikePortland keep using the word “stagnation”. To quote Indigo Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means.

      Building of bike infrastructure has not “stagnated” (defined as inactivity).

      Recommended Thumb up 7

      • Alan 1.0 December 12, 2013 at 7:04 pm

        Sure looks to me like roll-out of bike infrastructure in Portland isn’t flowing (def. of stagnant) like it did some years ago, nor like the 2030 plan envisioned, nor like it is in quite a few other cities. Quibble if you must but plenty of people understand what “stagnant” means in that context.

        And his name is Inigo. Prepare to die.

        Recommended Thumb up 7

    • wsbob December 13, 2013 at 9:49 am

      “…Certainly PBOT needs better communication of why bike/ped infra is so crucial, but unless they’re going to start standing up to the PBA sometime soon, I don’t see much moving forward…” Hart Noecker

      So your suggestion for improving active transportation infrastructure in Portland, would seem to be to strike an adversarial stance against a long established, well known citizen association, having a significant interest in the health and vitality of the city.

      Doesn’t sound like a very wise suggestion…but maybe you’ve something else in mind you’d care to explain to bikeportland’s readers.

      Recommended Thumb up 3

  • AndyC of Linnton December 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    Well, here’s hoping this strategy does something to move us past this…uh…supine moment? Not stagnant or putrefying, but …lazy?

    Anywho, looking forward to news that proves this is such a big deal, and I honestly hope it is, our current inertia is maddening.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • paikikala December 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Money = flow. Stagnant = no flow. Trickle = low flow. It doesn’t matter what priority bikes are in Portland, if the money has been cut off, so are the projects. If you recall, PBOT has had to slash budget the lat two to five cycles and only just started seeing a no-cut scenario for the next fiscal year, 2014/2015. It can’t grow new programs without new money. PBOT doesn’t have the funds to maintain what’s been built, and has already stopped maintaining most local streets.

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      • wsbob December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am

        “Money = flow. Stagnant = no flow. Trickle = low flow. It doesn’t matter what priority bikes are in Portland, if the money has been cut off, so are the projects….” paikikala

        If people…the public, were sufficiently persuaded that increasing the portion of their money paid in taxes that is spent on active transportation, was a good idea, something the city was vitally in need of for basic function, the money would be there. Lots of people besides those making up PBOT’s staff could be doing a better job of presenting a persuasive argument for better walking and biking conditions on Portland streets.

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  • PDX Dave December 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Great news. I too have noticed the the PBOT Twitter account is quite active and provides a bunch of useful info.

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  • Mike December 12, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Wake me up when the number of completed non-auto-related infrastructure projects, green engineering hires and truly progressive revenue streams exceeds the number of new PR hires, advisory committees, and non-binding plans.

    Only at that point can we say that any of this is a “big deal”.

    General relativity says the future is already on someone’s “now” slice of the space time loaf, but it’s not at all clear if it’s a future worth cycling, walking, or transiting into.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Todd Boulanger December 13, 2013 at 10:27 am

    This is a positive step in the right direction overall. Time will of course will tell.

    In my experience bike facilities are among the toughest infrastructure projects to implement [as retrofit scenario] in this country…the deck is so stacked against them from policy to politics…and PBoTs “recent” lack of chops in communications [+ the Adams administration's lack of focus] has made it even more difficult.

    Back during the Williams Project…I was thinking out loud to myself…where else in in the Nation would a transportation agency be struggling to implement a project with a modal split of 2000 to 3000 cyclists per day…in a middle sized burg?! It was more like there was only 200 to 300 cyclists using the facility per day…

    Recommended Thumb up 0

  • Deanna December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Amen! Looking forward to Rivera!

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