On Tuesday I joined City Commissioner Randy Leonard on his ride home from work.
I requested the meeting/interview/ride because I’ve heard he’s a dedicated bike commuter, and more importantly, because one of the lessons I learned during the Bike Master Plan funding fiasco is that if we really want bikes to get to the next level in this town, we’ve got to go beyond the friendly confines of Commissioner Adams’ office.
Not that Leonard’s office isn’t friendly. Far from it. I instantly felt at ease with him and his staff, including his bike commuting office manager Jane Prideaux.
Once Leonard had “dressed down” into his cotton tank-top and long cycling tights, we smiled at the sun and rode out to SE Foster and 91st, where his biodiesel-powered Jeep Liberty awaited.
“I shocked a lot of people when I started doing this.”
Randy lives up on Mt. Scott, but depending on how his morning is going, he’ll park and ride anywhere from 91st & Foster to as close in as 50th & Clinton.
Leonard got interested in both biodiesel and bikes when gas prices spiked about two-and-a-half years ago (he’s the man behind a new city ordinance that goes into effect July 1st of this year that requires that all diesel products sold in Portland must contain at least 5% biodiesel).
The ride gave me the chance to not only learn how passionate Randy is about alternative fuels (he waxed endearingly about how biodiesel is produced and how proud he was that Oregon farmers will now grow more of it), but also how he thinks about bikes and the bike community.
When I brought up the Bike Master Plan issue, he was quick to share that he felt the response from the cycling community were highly effective. He said it wasn’t just the sheer quantity but more importantly, the quality of the letters written. He was very impressed with how reasonable and well-thought out the responses were.
As we rolled away from City Hall and onto the Hawthorne Bridge, he said initially turned to bikes when gas prices spiked, but he was quickly hooked. For a man with 25 years as a firefighter, the move was unexpected by his family and friends. “I think I shocked a lot of people when I started doing this.”
He said he just rides for exercise (and he gets plenty of it, judging from the steady stream of sweat coming from under his helmet as we rode) not to make any grand political or environmental statement.
But cycling has changed more than just his waist size. His experience of riding has brought him face-to-face with the safety hazards and issues Portland cyclists face every day. On our route out of the city, we pedaled through a diverse range of bike environments; from the idyllic bike boulevard of SE Clinton to the unimproved gravel and potholes of outer southeast (I forget the exact street) and the high-speed boulevards near Eastport Plaza.
Avoiding major streets at all costs, Randy said he gladly goes out of his way for safer routes. He also pointed out that the recent bicyclist fatality at SE 112th and Foster Rd. was very close to his daily route. Earlier this year, Leonard joined PDOT traffic engineers and bike planners on a ride to survey the new bike boulevard planned for southeast Portland.
Toward the end of our ride, Leonard shared a story about his grandson Cole,
“When I’ve got a slow Friday at work, I’ll bike to work with Cole. He loves going over the Hawthorne Bridge. Last week we drove in to town to see a movie and as we came over the bridge he said, “Grandpa…isn’t this the bridge we ride our bikes on?””
As Commissioner of Public Safety and a grandfather of a bike-riding eight year-old, he’s got a lot riding on the safety of biking in Portland.
If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.
I’m so glad to read this story — I’ve long known Randy as an impassioned bicyclist, but I agree, we all need to figure out how we can work more closely with him and the other commissioners towards our ultimate goal of making Portland a world-class biking city.
Sounds like you both had a good ride. Kudos!
Hopefully Commissioner Leonard will park & ride at Mt. Scott Community Center next Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. so he can join in the Mt. Scott-Arleta Bike To Work day ride. It’s nice to have a commissioner that lives east of 39th Ave!
Yeah, great story. I have a really positive impression of Randy after talking about the Portland Renewable Fuels Standard, and other renewable energy topics, with him. Don’t you get the impression that if more of these City government folks actually rode a bike — even occasionally — that they’d have a much better appreciation for how difficult the situation really is, and how current law doesn’t do enough to incentivize cycling? Perhaps we should hold small group rides and invite the Mayor and other Commissioners out to see what it’s really like to be a commuter.
Jonathan, I’d be particularly interested to know how you got (or how anyone else gets) across SE 82nd & I-205 and up onto Mt Scott, as I like to ride all the way to the top from my place in Sellwood to get in a good climb. But I have yet to find a good, safe route to cross those busy intersections. Last time, I took Johnson Creek Blvd up. The bike lane around SE 82nd and I-205 was in horrible condition — full of debris — and the high-speed traffic was somewhat disconcerting. Is there a better route?
It was good reading about your rad work around town in the Oregonian today. Thanks for being so biketastic!
Great reporting. This is the type of in-depth story that would be well-suited to a Podcast, complete with recorded comments by Leonard himself. Thanks for this thoughtful look at one of our City Commissioners.
Great story Jonathan and great idea. You should approach all of the comissioners. Dan Saltzman oversees the Office of Sustainable Development so he would be a great next choice. Erik Sten lives in Irvington, I’ve run into him on the #9 bus several times, so he shouldn’t be too hard to convince as well.
I think it’s cool that “our other bike-loving commissioner” actually rides bikes (in addition to loving them). Go Randy!
I voted for Commissioner Leonard when he first ran, but then started to question my decision when he attacked neighborhood associations and made a few other dicey decisions that didn’t really meet with my personal agenda.
His recent actions have solidified my support for Randy Leonard. I was totally impressed by his quick and positive response to my request for supporting the bike master plan update.
For me, the bottom line is my life. I commute by bicycle and use my bike as my primary transportation. Any elected official that recognizes that I put my life on the line every time I wheel my bike out of my driveway, and who is willing to fund projects that enhance my safety, is someone I will vote into office and whom I will continue to support with my vote. Period.
Excellent article – I love this kind of stuff when I actually learn some positive things about the workone of our elected leader is doing, as well as his general life in our community. I know it’s not the main focus of the article, but I want to echo the sentiment that more attention needs to be paid to bike transportation in the outlying east side. As someone who commutes daily east from near 82nd to east Gresham, I can say firsthand that the bike lanes are more littered with glass and debris and seem to get less cleanup than those closer in. The Burnside bikepath paralleling Max to Rockwood seems to get it bad, and I spend a lot of my ride in the car lane to avoid broken bottles.
More importantly, as a teacher I love the push to get more kids biking to school, and while it presents challenges close in, those challenges are multiplied in the suburbs. I’ve advocated that many schools could save transportation dollars by canceling bus service for kids living within one mile of school and instead promoting neighborhood volunteer walk and bike pools. However, for most Gresham schools there are simply no safe bike routes to the schools. I’d like to see Portland and other communities require trhat this be addressed in all new school construction.
Like I said, I know this isn’t the main point of the article, and I certainly don’t expect Randy to address problems outside Portland, but it’s great to know there’s a commissioner with firsthand experience bike commuting east of the core.
I remember back when Randy Leonard was running for City Councilor. I attended a Candidates’ Forum, and all the candidates were asked: “If elected to the City Council, how will you get to work?” The other, more eco-conscious candidates said nice things like, “I’ll take the bus,” or “I’ll take the MAX train.” etc. Randy said unequivocally, “I’ll drive my car.” (You could almost hear the collective gasp of shock and horror from the lefty, East Portland crowd in attendance!)
I’m really proud of Randy Leonard for being open-minded and willing to change his mind about transportation options after winning his seat on the City Council. That speaks volumes about his character and leadership ability.