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Sam Oakland, leader of the ‘Shift of the 1970s,’ dies at 80

Posted by on April 1st, 2014 at 9:55 am

Pioneering Portland bike advocate Sam Oakland
received a Bud Clark Award for lifetime achievement
from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in 2001.
(Photo courtesy BTA.)

An often-forgotten forefather of Portland’s street-level bike advocacy movement died last week.

Sam Oakland, an English professor, poet and author who rode his bicycle to work at what was then Portland State College, started rallying bicycle riders to attend City Hall hearings in the late 1960s and led citizen actions in support of Oregon’s groundbreaking 1971 Bike Bill.

“There just wasn’t a lot of advocacy going on at that time,” said Karen Frost, who followed in Oakland’s steps 25 years later as the first executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. “He was really kind of a prime mover.”

He called his volunteer network the “Bicycle Lobby,” and referred to himself only as its “clerk.”

Scott Cohen, a city transportation bureau staffer and student of local transportation history, said his impression is that Oakland’s group was “the Shift of the 1970s.”

Local historian Steven Reed Johnson has this account of a rally organized by Oakland, then 36, in November 1970:

400 bicycle enthusiasts gathered on Swan Island in North Portland to draw attention to a four-point petition that Oakland had written. The petition called upon the city to create bike lanes on major thoroughfares and bridges; bike parking facilities near schools, department stores, supermarkets, restaurants and in city garages; bike racks on city busses; and the consideration of bike lanes and parking facilities in plans for future developments within the city.

Frost, who researched Oakland’s work as part of a 2001 event that marked the 30th anniversary of the bike bill, said Monday that in the days before email databases, Oakland used handwritten posters, word of mouth and bike activism’s longtime secret weapon — bike rides — to make Portland riders a political force in the lead-up to the 1970s bike boom.

“There was a constituency of bicycling at the time, and that grew out of the fact that it was easy to bike,” Frost said. “You know how Southeast Portland is.”

According to Johnson, Oakland calculated in 1971 that 400 people bike-commuted into downtown Portland daily.

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  • 9watts April 1, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for this great bit of local history!

    “I’ve put over 60,000 miles on my original bicycle and I’m still riding it”
    Take that–you who like to whine about the carbon footprint of bicycles.

    Recommended Thumb up 8

  • Jim Labbe April 1, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Great story. This is hopeful, inspiring, and informative reporting.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Eastsider April 1, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    why is “The Sam Oakland Bridge” not being considered for the new bridge over the Willamette??

    Recommended Thumb up 10

    • Allan Folz April 1, 2014 at 10:12 pm

      White male? They are like the Romans from Monty Python. :)

      Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Matti April 1, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    As a Portland high school bike enthusiast, I remember attending rides organized by Sam in the early 70s. The bike infrastructure we enjoy today started with his simple vision of an alternative to the automobile paradigm. It was part of an awakening of environmental values in our culture. Sam carried the flag with humor and enthusiasm against a lot of naysayers. Thank you Sam.
    I wish it weren’t still such a battle to create great bike facilities. Carry on, comrades!

    Recommended Thumb up 5

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