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The Dalles at a tipping point says “bike freak” Mayor Stephen Lawrence

Posted by on April 2nd, 2014 at 4:57 pm

A bike tour of The Dalles-3
Mayor of The Dalles, Stephen Lawrence.
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePorltand)

The Dalles’ Mayor Stephen Lawrence described himself as a “Blumenauer bike freak” when I met him in City Hall on Monday. I’m used to elected officials boosting their cycling credentials when they talk with me; but in Mayor Lawrence’s case, so far he’s actually backing it up.

“I’m a Blumenauer bike freak. I saw how he did it, and it’s those same things I want to focus on to help this community grow into itself.”
— Stephen Lawrence, Mayor of The Dalles

Lawrence grew up in The Dalles, then left to establish his law career in Portland. He returned in 2007 to relax and write historical fiction; but he soon got annoyed by how the city was being run and the accidental politician found himself being sworn in as mayor in January 2013.

Last summer, he was driving around town and came upon a group of bike riders. So, like he often does, he pulled over in his Mini Cooper and started up a conversation. “They said there were about 100 of them in their group and they were just here to ride around and enjoy the roads,” Lawrence recalled. “And I’m thinking, O.K., so we’re a destination for cyclists and I didn’t even know it?”

Since then, Lawrence has been an outspoken advocate for cycling. He remembers being in Portland when our transportation department was led by now-Congressman Earl Blumenauer. “I saw how he did it,” Lawrence explained, referring to Blumenauer’s focus on bicycling and transit in the 1990s, “And it’s those same things I want to focus on to help this community grow into itself.”

There are two major bike events weighing on Mayor Lawrence’s mind these days: The arrival of the Cycle Oregon ride in September and the completion of ODOT’s Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail, which is expected to be completed by 2016. (“We’re going to be at the end of that thing,” he said about the HCRH project, “so we need to start planning for it.”)

Another thing forcing the mayor to think about making The Dalles’ streets more livable is the boom in cruise ship traffic to the dock at the end of Union Street in downtown. Last year they had 40 cruise ships stop there, this year they expect over 100. The increase is due in part to the strengthening economy, but it’s also due to the general popularity of The Gorge, which ship operator National Geographic describes as a chance to explore the area’s rich history, “lush landscapes” and locally sourced food and drink. It’s worth mentioning that the cruise ships offer guests free bike rentals to take with them during their stay. During the busy season, they’re expecting one cruise ship per week, each one of them with 250 passengers.

It’s one thing to bring tourists to The Dalles’ streets, but it’s another thing to make them feel comfortable on a bike once they get there. And let’s not forget local residents who can’t afford to drive and who rely on a bike to get around town.

A bike tour of The Dalles-1-2
Bonus points in my book for having a copy
of the 1993 Bike Master Plan at his fingertips.

That’s where The Dalles’ Bicycle Master Plan comes in. Unfortunately it was last published in 1993 and most of its recommendations (surprise) didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t think such an old planning document would be on the Mayor’s radar, so when I saw a copy of it in his folder with a bunch of hand-written notes next to it, I was pleasantly surprised.

After that chance meeting with a bunch of bike riders last summer, the mayor said he called a meeting and initiated an update to the plan. “We’re going to update it, and we’re going to implement it,” he told me, in a matter-of-fact tone that made it sound like a far easier task than it’s likely to be. So far he’s only had a few advisory meetings to gather input and the real work hasn’t begun.

Before getting into specific project details and plans, Mayor Lawrence wants to make sure the community feels invested in the bike plan process. At this point, the idea of embracing cycling is so new to everyone The Dalles that he feels they’ve got to answer some basic questions first: “What kind of bike town are we going to be? Are we just going to accomodate bikes, or are we going to do more than that?”

Citizen involvement is a hallmark of Mayor Lawrence. One of the reasons he ran for office, he says, is because he felt like his concerns over various issues weren’t being taken seriously by city councilors. “I’m trying to re-instate the citizen,” is how he explained his approach. (And one way he’s trying to do that is by printing his personal phone number and email address on his business card.) “The Internet has pulled people away, you need to get them involved.” Then, paraphrasing a quote someone once told him, he said, “Change occurs when someone discovers the next step. We’re asking citizens to help us discover the next step while the tipping point is happening right before our eyes and we’re trying to keep up.”

“Change occurs when someone discovers the next step. We’re asking citizens to help us discover the next step while the tipping point is happening right before our eyes and we’re trying to keep up.”

What will happen when citizens of The Dalles have a chance to weigh in about cycling? That’s an important, and still largely unknown question.

Mayor Lawrence has support for cycling among other civic leaders and there’s a nucleus of pro-bicycling advocates stepping up; but whether or not the broader community of The Dalles will become “bike freaks” like him — or even come to tolerate the changes cycling will bring — remains to be seen. And there are signs things might not be easy. Some people are already getting defensive about parking spaces downtown — an issue that will surely heat up when street space for bike racks and other projects is required. And the Mount Hood Cycling Classic used to hold a stage that went through downtown; but it hasn’t returned for the last three years after several business owners complained about how it hurt their bottom line.

“There’s a lot of resistance, it’s a fear of change… If people have to walk two blocks to park, they bitch and moan,” Lawrence said with his usual candor, “So it’s an education process.”

And like every town in Oregon, funding road projects is thorny and complicated issue. They have a massive maintenance backlog with over 60% of roads lower than “fair” condition. “That’s not good for cyclists either,” Lawrence said, so he’s working with transportation agencies to focus on fixing existing roads rather than building new ones.

While infrastructure problems loom large, Mayor Lawrence wanted me to know that, “The City isn’t here to just build infrastructure. We have to fight that perception. The City has to be a leader, advocate, optimist, cheerleader, organizer, coordinator… and use the bully pulpit.”

Will a bully pulpit be enough to make significant and lasting changes? Mayor Lawrence’s enthusiasm for bicycling has already advanced the conversation to an unprecedented level in The Dalles; but enthusiasm and conversations are the easy part. Turning energy and ideas into actions, projects, and a cultural change is a much heavier lift.

At least Lawrence knows how far they have yet to go. Toward the end of our conversation, he caught me off-guard again with an unexpected analogy. “We’re like a mediocre surfer at the tip of a huge have and everyone’s thinking, ‘Will he be able to manipulate that wave?’”

— This story is part of our special coverage of The Dalles. Read more here.

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Comments
  • Jim Labbe April 2, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    Way to get us out of the Portland bubble Jonathan.

    Congrats to for Mayor Lawrence! This article inspires me to put the Dallas in my list of bike destinations

    I love these stories about the courageous bicycle leaders across the state. Maybe BikePortland should become BikeOregon.

    Jim

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    • Granpa April 3, 2014 at 8:05 am

      What he said!

      Kudos Jonathan and Mayor Laurence.

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    • q`Tzal April 3, 2014 at 9:50 am

      Ambassador Maus bringing bicycle advocacy issues to communities in the entire state!

      Maybe if the rest of the state could see that transportation options are not just a Portland hipster issue but an everyone issue we might get traction on bike projects and road user safety in general.

      Crafty political machinations on a working vacation JM!

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  • Todd Boulanger April 2, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Good luck Mayor Stephen Lawrence! The Dalles would make a great bike town for both tourists and locals from my experience there and with this update. (It still will not be easy…it never is…even in Bikevana.)

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  • BellaBici April 2, 2014 at 11:21 pm

    Wow To take a one way ship cruise up the Columbia to The Dalles, then ride back to Portland on the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail downhill on your bicycle! A beautiful gradual downhill. sigh Sign me up!

    Keep the forward progress, Mayor Lawrence. We need more bike freaks like you at the reigns of power.

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    • Don April 3, 2014 at 7:25 am

      I’m looking forward to the completion of the Historic Columbia River Hwy too but it anyone is expecting to coast from The Dalles to Portland they should check some topo maps before heading out. There are several climbs that most riders will find challenging, to say the least.

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      • adventure! April 3, 2014 at 11:14 am

        Not only that, but the base elevation of downtown The Dalles is 110 feet, and downtown Portland around 50 feet. Not exactly anything that would be noticeable over the course of 80 miles. What would be noticeable is the stiff headwind heading west when riding through the Gorge over the summer.

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        • gl. April 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm

          so you’re saying in the summer we should ride TO the dalles and take the ship back? :)

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          • adventure! April 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm

            Yep. Tailwind the whole way out!

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    • A.K. April 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

      LOL.

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  • Jayson April 3, 2014 at 8:05 am

    I didn’t know there were cruise ships that operate in the gorge. What an awesome idea!

    I can’t wait for the Columbia River Trail to be completed. Hopefully there is (or will be) a good bike route from the end of MAX Blue Line to the beginning of the trail.

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    • Oliver April 3, 2014 at 9:03 am

      End of the Yellow Line–>Marine Drive–>Troutdale–>Corbett. Though the future of the Marine Drive path is in question due to the levy work mandated by the Feds.

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  • Dave April 3, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I like the guy; he reminds me of former Vancouver mayor Pollard.

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  • LKM April 3, 2014 at 9:25 am

    We just booked a 2-night stay based on your coverage of The Dalles. Thanks for highlighting the area and the people of the area! We’re looking forward to a night at the historic Balch Hotel in Dufur, near The Dalles.

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    • A.K. April 3, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      You should send the mayor an email tell him that! It’ll really drive the point home.

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  • nuovorecord April 3, 2014 at 10:06 am

    There are great rides around The Dalles area. Highly recommended!

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  • Brad April 3, 2014 at 10:18 am

    I love the fact that Mayor Lawrence is a straight talker and a realist. Very refreshing to hear versus the constant fantasizing and political speak about “visioning”, “neighborly consensus building”, “culturally aware, Dutch inspired pavement striping”, etc. that gets tossed about by Portland pols, bureaucrats, and advocates.

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  • Brian April 3, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Mayor Lawrence, don’t forget about those who ride mountain bikes. We drive all over the state (Bend, Oakridge, Hood River, Ashland, etc) to stay, eat, and ride. I have been driving to Cascade Locks for daily trips just to ride some fun trails my four year old, too. Build great trail systems, and we will come! And spend!
    Cheers.

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    • Brian April 3, 2014 at 11:29 am

      I would add that many of the destinations I included are seasonal destinations. I would love a close-by, Winter weekend mountain biking destination. I’m not sure one currently exists. On Facebook, I have recently noticed the Mt Hood Vacation rentals is using the Sandy Ridge Trail System in its marketing pitch.

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  • GlowBoy April 3, 2014 at 10:47 am

    There are tons of great rides – both paved and gravel – around The Dalles, and it’s been one of my “cycling destinations” for well over a decade. First because of the Deschutes Rail-Trail nearby, but I’ve also done a number of paved-road rides in the beautiful farm country to the SE of town, and more recently enjoyed some great gravel rides nearby, including the Dalles Mountain 60 route and the Klickitat Trail.

    They’re also developing a mountain bike trail system at Columbia Hills State Park, right across the river from The Dalles, and I believe there is also a small trail system right in town, though I haven’t checked it out yet.

    Really glad to hear how forward-looking the mayor is, and excited to see The Dalles become even more of a destination.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 3, 2014 at 10:53 am

    As for mountain biking, one place several locals told me about was Eagle Caves. It’s super close to town. Small area overall, but fun singletrack. Here’s a route I found on Strava

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    • Brian April 3, 2014 at 11:31 am

      Thanks, Jonathan. Add some more XC trails (including some advanced, technical options), flow trails, dirt jumps, and trails the beginner rider can handle and we will come.

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  • Carl April 3, 2014 at 11:20 am

    Awesome. Lawrence needs a “THIS IS WHAT A BIKE FREAK LOOKS LIKE” tshirt.

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