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In Portland, bikes are now part of the “Club”

Posted by on May 4th, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Bikes at City Club-12

The City Club of Portland hosted
inspiring bikes and speakers last
(Photos © J. Maus)

There are many signs in Portland that bikes are quickly moving beyond their fringe and “activist” labels of the past (when’s the last time you heard of Critical Mass in this city?). Families pedal our streets in increasing numbers, politicians are eager to embrace bikers and bike-friendly policies, businesses clamor for more bike parking, developers compete to see who can include the best bike amenities in their buildings, and so on.

“For the cost of about one mile of freeway, $50 million, we’ve built a network of 275 miles of bikeways, that’s one heck of a bang-for-your-buck investment.”
— Mia Birk, Alta Planning and Design

But perhaps one of the last bastions of exclusion for bikes is Portland’s old guard. I don’t often report on them, but they’re there. Old-school, socially connected, and civic-minded folks who don’t always see beyond their valet parking and the roads that lead to their hilltop homes.

However, slowly but surely, biking’s new face is presenting itself to them as well, and nowhere has this been more evident as at the City Club of Portland last Friday.

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A City Club member gives a
hardwood Renovo the lift.

The City Club was founded in 1916 and their laudable mission is to “inform its members and the community in public matters and to arouse in them a realization of the obligations of citizenship”. The club is a regular host to our region’s top visionaries and leaders in the worlds of arts, letters, politics, business and now, bicycles.

Their program on Friday was “It’s All About the Bike”, and once I walked into the grand ballroom at the Governor Hotel (past the well-appointed doormen and sophisticated clientele) I could see what they meant. As City Club members filed in to their lunch tables, they mingled with 18 local bike builders. They stared at the bikes, asked questions, some even got on their hands and knees for a closer look.

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The builders…

The builders ranged from veterans of the craft like Joseph Ahearne, to new builders like Ed Manning of Palmares Cycles (who told me he was a bit “intimidated” by such “top-notch” quality).

The handmade bikes were a fitting first course. After perusing the latest in cyclocross race machines (like the Vanilla Speedvagen), city bikes (Argonaut’s step through was a gem), and even hardwood road racers (Ken Wheeler’s Renovo bikes just get better and better), attendees settled in for a trio of speeches by three bike advocacy superstars.

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…and their bikes.

Bike Gallery owner, past president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, co-chair of the City of Portland Bicycle Master Plan Update, and Oregon State Parks Commissioner (yes I listed all those to make a point) Jay Graves, started things off with a history of Portland’s bike movement. He said that movement is about to rally around “a plan of action that will radically transform our city.”

Graves appealed to the crowd’s sense of history and duty when he shared that, back in the 1890s — when there were thousands of bicyclists in Portland — most of the city’s roads were dirt and “it was civic and business leaders like all of you that lobbied to get routes paved.”

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Mia Birk at the lectern.

Mia Birk, the city’s former bike coordinator who founded the firm Alta Planning and Design in her living room and is now working on a memoir about her life in bikes called “Joyride”, took to the mic next. With her trademark energy and optimism, Birk chronicled her work in the 1990s as an evangelist for biking in Portland. Spurred by the passage of our Bicycle Master Plan in 1996 and a trip to Europe that filled her with ideas, she worked neighborhood meetings, hoping to convince Portlanders (one at a time if that’s what it took) that bikes should play a larger role in our city’s future.

Friday, Birk worked to convince City Club members that Portland should do more and invest more in bikes. “For the cost of about one mile of freeway, $50 million,” she said, “We’ve built a network of 275 miles of bikeways, that’s one heck of a bang-for-your-buck investment.” “What if we invested six or seven-percent [of the city’s budget, we currently spend less than one] on bikes? I believe we could reach a 20% mode share.”

“Understand, please, what we’re talking about here today is not the need for a Spandex revolution…the last thing our city needs is more middle aged men wearing tight pants. What we need is a lifestyle revolution.”
— Jonathan Nicholas, The ODS Companies

Taking the torch from Birk was former columnist for The Oregonian and founder of Cycle Oregon Jonathan Nicholas. I’m not sure what it was, (perhaps because he’s freed from The O’s oversight), but Nicholas was more animated and fiery about biking than I’ve ever heard him.

In his moving speech, he told about his inspiration for starting Cycle Oregon and made the case for bicycles as engines that can revitalize both the people and the economy of our city. Now in charge of communications for health and dental care provider The ODS Companies, Nicholas spoke about the current state of the poor health of our citizens and the health care system itself.

“These staggering costs [of health care and sedentary lifestyles] do more than cripple our pocketbooks.” he said, “They stifle business growth and inhibit job creation.” Nicholas called for a revolution:

“Understand, please, what we’re talking about here today is not the need for a Spandex revolution…the last thing our city needs is more middle aged men wearing tight pants. What we need is a lifestyle revolution.”

Nicholas said that the vision laid out by Graves and Birk is a “simply astonishing opportunity” that we would have to be “insane” not to embrace. He then listed “inertia and stupidity, laced with a massive helping of political self-interest,” as the reasons why the vision remains unfulfilled.

Saying that he doesn’t want to settle for “just a trail here, a greenway there,” Nicholas advocated for “the retrofitting of our entire urban environment” through “repurposing” the public right-of-way. For instance, how about taking away an entire lane of traffic on NE Broadway, from 33rd all the way to Portland State and using it for a “a higher, for a healthier, purpose.” (You took the words right out of my mouth Jonathan!)

Nicholas’ speech was inspiring, but for me, his most memorable quip came when the panel was asked to share their favorite local rides. After Mia Birk mentioned Marine Drive, Nicholas chimed in and added,

“Just before you complete the loop, you should pop up under the St. Johns Bridge, and see how everyone involved in the Department of Transportation [ODOT] remodeling that bridge should be utterly ashamed at the woeful job they did.”

Like this candid remark by Nicholas, the speakers balanced their praise of Portland’s accomplishments with a clear sense that there’s work to be done and mistakes to acknowledge (and avoid) as we move forward. Friday’s event was about educating and sharing a vision for bikes with folks who aren’t yet on board. I think it was a raging success on both fronts.

— You can listen to all the speeches via MP3 on the City Club’s website. Also, browse more of my images from the event in the Photo Gallery.

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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    mmann May 4, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I listened to the re-broadcast Friday evening. I thought Jonathan Nicholas’s remarks were the most eloquent and moving I’ve ever heard connecting the role of bikes with the health of the region and its citizens.

    If there is a recall election…

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    Jessica Roberts May 4, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I volunteered with Options & PSU at the farmer’s market on Saturday and at least a dozen people came up to talk to us about this event. Most of them had listened to it later. I have the impression this may be one of the best-attended (in person and virtually) City Club speeches ever!

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    Tony P May 4, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    As a follower of City Club’s lectures via OPB I was really excited to be invited to a Friday Forum and it did not disappoint. It was great to be able to show our work to people that might not otherwise be exposed to it.

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    Grimm May 4, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    This all sounds fantastic. I hope it was moving enough to further the snowball, and make believers out of some of the nay sayers.

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    Bill Stites May 4, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Glad to hear others are as inspired by Jonathan Nicholas’ talk as I am. I was nearly brought to tears …

    I heartily embraced the concept he shared of “Active Transportation”, including his firm statement that we need to take back public space away from “motorcars” … wow, refreshing. That’s what it’s going to take, not just support on the positive side [walking/cycling], but suppression on the negative side [cars].
    With all the talk of improving cycling conditions, it’s not often we hear the need to actively suppress the automobile … to make way for more intelligent and equitable uses of our streets.

    This can make a truly huge impact toward general health and livable communities in the years to come.
    Of course, the big question is, where the f*ck is the political will???

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    Spencer Boomhower May 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Nicholas’ speech was a definite high point! But they were all great.

    The historical context gives a different perspective on the story of bikes: it’s a comeback. Back in the day, around 1900-ish, bikes were just getting rolling, but then were rapidly overshadowed by the amazing new power of automobiles. It’s not until recently that that downside of cars has started sinking in, and now we’re rewinding a bit to take a fresh look at densely developed places, and the best means by which to travel such places. That would be bikes. So the current surge of cycling is actually a *re*surgence. Bike, interrupted.

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    Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 4, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Nicholas sent me the text of his speech.. if enough people are interested I could post it on Page Two. what do you think? (It was really good).

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    Spencer Boomhower May 4, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    I’d love to see the text of the speech, if only to see how much the accent had to do with making it work :). I heard a radio interview recently with a guy up in Seattle who’s starting a business using a sailboat and electric-assist trikes to deliver organic veggies from farm to doorstep. Awesome Scottish accent. Leading me to conclude – even before hearing Jonathan Nicholas’ speech – that transportation advocacy gains tremendous effectiveness when delivered with an accent.

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    Sheila Lyons May 4, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Johathan – Yes please post Mr Nicholas’ text. I’d love to read it.

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    Margaux Mennesson May 4, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    Jonathan Nicholas gave an incredible speech, and I’d also like to read the text again.

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    Jonathan Maus (Editor) May 4, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    hey folks, after many requests (here and on facebook and twitter and emails!), I have published Nicholas’ speech.

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    Spencer Boomhower May 4, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Thanks for posting the speech.

    I was sort of kidding about the accent stuff, but reading this:

    “The vision that Jay and Mia have outlined for us all here today is a simply astonishing opportunity, one so cost-effective we would be insane not to embrace it. What’s stopping us nothing more than those old bedfellows; inertia and stupidity. Laced with a massive helping of political self-interest.”

    …I’m reminded of how startled I was by his simply telling it like it is, in such stark terms. So often I hesitate to go there because because I think it’ll come off badly – dont want to seem like a car-basher, now do I? But it didn’t seem like Mr. Nicholas was bashing anyone; he was simply naming the forces – inertia, stupidity, and political self-interest – aligned against common sense. That it didn’t seem harsh might have been the the accent at work :). Or maybe it was the sheer self-evident truth of the statement.

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    Dave May 5, 2009 at 7:33 am

    When the ruling class (yes, we have one)
    takes to cycling, we all win. Bravo, City Club.

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    Ms. Contrarian May 5, 2009 at 11:08 am

    V=When the ruling class (yes, we have one)
    takes to cycling, we all win. Bravo, City Club.

    The bike lobby enjoys more access to the power brokers than many other special interest groups. The power elite are white and well-educated. The bike lobby mostly is as well. It’s a lot easier to get face time with people who look like you, may have gone to the same universities as you, etc. My bike activist friends have met way more Portland movers and shakers, than my education activist friends, especially those of color. I don’t remember the council candidates courting the African-American community or impoverished* outer SE whites/latinos/asian communities the way the cyclists have been courted.

    Just own that you have unique access to power based on the socio-economic status and the social cachet of the activists and you will seem more authentic to other activist communities.

    *impoverished in this case does NOT mean underemployed person with college degree.

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    Paul Tay May 5, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    I bike-crash as many old guard charity events as possible in tux.

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