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Who might take the reins of the BTA?

Posted by on December 10th, 2009 at 8:00 am

BTA's new office

The door is open. Who will walk in?
(Photos © J. Maus)

As the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) readies to launch a national search for a leader to replace Scott Bricker, we thought it’d be fun to make a few guesses as to who might take the reins.

So far, we don’t have many specifics about the type of leader the BTA is looking for (they haven’t released a job description yet). However, it’s safe to assume they’re looking for someone who will take the organization to the next level. They’ve hinted at becoming a more “aggressive” advocacy organization, and, with an annual budget in excess of $1 million and a large staff, they’ll also need a sterling manager (of both people and pennies).

What follows, in no particular order, is a completely unscientific and unsubstantiated list of local, regional, and national bike superstars who might want to consider throwing their hat in to the ring (or not).

Joe “Metal Cowboy” Kurmaskie

CRC Rally-107

At a rally to protest the
12-lane CRC.

Mr. Kurmaskie is an interesting possibility. He’s a best-selling author and accomplished speaker who has honed his craft on stage all over the country. He’s also got roots in grassroots environmental activism. Kurmaskie put that experience to use when he sprung into action in November 2008 as a key leader in the We Are ALL Traffic coalition and as emcee of a rally calling for safer streets in the wake of two high-profile deaths in Portland.

We saw Kurmaskie’s charisma at work again at the waterfront rally against the Columbia River Crossing project. You might also remember his starring role in a series of YouTube videos that skewered the CRC.

Kurmaskie is the classic activist: Creative, bold, and focused on his message. He’s already made a name for himself as an author and he might be looking for a new challenge. We also know he cares deeply about bike and transportation safety in Portland (he’s got four kids, so he’s got a big motivation to keep our streets safe).

Randy Neufeld

National Bike Summit - Day two-3

At the National Bike Summit.

Mr. Neufeld, a legend in the bike advocacy world, is the former Executive Director and Chief Strategy Officer of Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance (formerly called the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation). Neufeld was the ED of Chicago’s largest bike advocacy organization for nearly 20 years (from 1987 to 2005). Last summer, he was hired away by bike industry behemoth SRAM to become the director of the SRAM Cycling Fund. In his current capacity, Neufeld is in charge of giving away millions of dollars to advocacy programs around the country.

Neufeld has the advocacy chops and his experience with SRAM has given him a unique national perspective. If he’s missing a connection to the grassroots and wants to get back into activism a job with the BTA might look appealing.

*Update: Mr. Neufeld wrote in with a few of his own suggestions excellent candidates from the national advocacy scene: Paul Steely-White from Transportation Alternatives in NYC; Leah Shahum from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition; Rob Sadowsky from the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago; Eric Gilliland from the Washington (DC) Area Bicycle Association, and Dan Grunndig from Bicycle Colorado.

A day in San Francisco-18.jpg

Leah Shahum
National Bike Summit - Day three-3

Paul Steely-White.
Congressional Reception -12.jpg

Eric Gilliland

Robert Ping

Our day on Capitol Hill-11.jpg

On Capitol Hill.

Mr. Ping is a former BTA staffer and veteran advocate who’s made his living promoting bicycles since the 1980s in the California Bay Area. He used to run the BTA’s Safe Routes to School program, but left that gig for a major step up as the Statewide Network Manager at the Safe Routes National Partnership, an organization funded by Bikes Belong.

Ping recently got a major promotion within the Partnership and has considerable autonomy and clout in the Safe Routes scene. It’s a dream job for someone who has devoted his life to helping kids get on bikes. However, his job demands a lot of travel away from Portland. If he’s looking for something closer to home, and a chance to make a difference in his own backyard, perhaps the BTA job will catch his attention.

Jim Middaugh

Jim Middaugh City Council candidate-3.jpg

He made a valiant run
for City Council.

Mr. Middaugh was Chief of Staff for former Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten. After trying his own run at City Council, Middaugh become a member of the BTA’s Board of Directors and eventually ended up in his current position as Communications Director at Metro.

Middaugh understands how change happens. As a political insider for Housing Commissioner Sten, he worked closely with homeless activists, a group some say is the most influential in City Hall (with bikes being a close second of course). Middaugh would bring a potent mix of activist spirit and political insight to the BTA. He’s likely making more at Metro than he would as the BTA’s leader, but the payment for leading Portland to the bike promised-land might be enough to lure him away from his desk job.

David Bragdon

Oregon Bike Summit afternoon sessions-2.jpg

Would bring major cred to the BTA.

Mr. Bragdon is serving out his final months as President of Metro. In that position he has spearheaded their Active Transportation Partnership and launched The Intertwine — an effort to coordinate trails and parks promotion efforts throughout the region.

Some have whispered Bragdon’s name for Oregon Governor, but so far he has not shown interest. Bragdon is a big picture thinker with major bike and active transportation credentials. He’s also got extensive experience at the local, regional and national levels of bureaucratic and political maneuvering. He might be a bit overqualified, but if he wants to put his active transportation visions into practice, he might feel more empowered to do so as the leader of an advocacy group than as an elected.

Michelle Poyourow

Kidical Mass-27

Will they hire from within?

Ms. Poyourow is the BTA’s current #1 advocacy staffer. Without a leader currently, Poyourow has emerged as the BTA’s strongest voice — whether she’s talking tough on the Columbia River Crossing project or taking PBOT bicycle coordinator Roger Geller to task on the Bicycle Plan. Her style is professional, confident, and collaborative.

Conventional wisdom is that the BTA isn’t looking to hire from within. They’ve made it clear they’re doing a “national search”, however, that’s the same thing they said before they hired Scott Bricker. Poyourow, through her current work, has an established network of advocacy contacts across Oregon and with the BTA’s renewed statewide focus she could really hit the ground running.

Mia Birk

Mia Birk

The smile that helped
launch cycling in Portland.

Ms. Birk has done just about everything in the bike movement but lead a non-profit. After cutting her teeth at an enviro/transportation think tank in Washington D.C., she took over the City of Portland’s bike program in its heyday. Working with then Commissioner of Transportation Earl Blumenauer, Birk masterfully pushed biking in Portland and laid the groundwork for much of what we all enjoy today. She went on to build Alta Planning and Design into a large and successful company and is due to launch a memoir of her life (Joyride, which she’s writing with Joe Kurmaskie).

Birk has the energy, vision, and spirit to lead two BTAs. She’s been an inside player for years and has had an incalculable impact on Portland’s bike-friendliness. Would she leave her current successes for the daily grind of running an advocacy group? Not sure, but she definitely has the heart, qualifications, and energy to do it.


Do you have ideas about who should lead the BTA? Or, perhaps you can add some thoughts about what traits they should look for in a new leader? We need a flourishing BTA to take big steps for bicycling in this town, and the right leader could make all the difference.

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  • bobcycle December 10, 2009 at 8:38 am

    While I find the topic of BTA leader search interesting and the list of candidates eye opening in terms of direction the BTA may take, I can’t help but conclude that the further BTA gets from the grass roots organization that Rex founded, the larger the gap created for an organization that addresses (emphasizes) the needs of the local PDX bicyclist. While I appreciate the need for statewide advocacy, I think a group that stays focused on the “local” bike scene is equally important. As BTA expands to become a statewide force for bikes I can’t help but believe this dilutes the effort needed in solving some pretty serious shortfalls in the local bike infrastructure. I vote for a BTA leader who has lived in Portland long enough to be intimately familiar with the local bike scene and focused on solving these important shortfalls.

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  • Mia Birk December 10, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for the kind words Jonathan! Mia

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  • nuovorecord December 10, 2009 at 9:07 am

    As important as passion for the mission is, the BTA needs a professional ED. Someone who has the specific skills and experience needed to lead a non-profit. Having a good set of politicial skills or being passionate about cycling doesn’t necessarily translate into being able to actually manage an organization.

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  • David Bragdon December 10, 2009 at 10:21 am

    It is flattering to be mentioned in such company. (I had been hoping to be offered the job as the new PSU football coach, but those hopes were dashed yesterday.) Thanks for the kind words.

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  • velo December 10, 2009 at 10:50 am

    I don’t have specific ideas of who should head the BTA, but it seems like bringing a person in who has a strong management background will be key. Advocacy is good and bicycle advocacy is good, but the BTA might have to go beyond these communities to find a person with the right skill set.

    The BTA needs a person who can be a visionary and a leader, but also be a solid and stable administrator. Some with management skills might not come from the bike community. This person might come from the wider progressive advocacy community. A person with a passion will learn the issues. A person who knows the issues might have a harder time building the leadership skills.

    With Portland as a base the BTA really has the potential to become the national model for bicycle transit advocacy. I would actually be in favor of splitting the program into a program for the Metro and one for the rest of the state. The issues are so very different they call for different programs.

    The other thing I’d like to see in a BTA leader is a person who is politically astute and an able organizer. Coalitions need to be created and relationships developed to meet with long term success. A background in politics, campaigns and government would likely serve a BTA leader well.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor-in-Chief) December 10, 2009 at 11:16 am

    These comments have helped crystallize for me what I think is a very big challenge for the BTA right now: How can they choose a leader when they are still trying to define themselves as an organization.

    It’s difficult to know what type of leader you want when you’re not yet clear on what type of advocacy org. you are.

    Perhaps they need an interim leader during this transition?

    Anyone from the BTA care to chime in?

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  • erok December 10, 2009 at 11:37 am

    just hire the other scott bricker, from BikePGH – they won’t even need to change the letterhead.

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  • Nick V December 10, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Mr. Bragdon #4,

    I hear the Blazers need a center.

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  • Jim Lee December 10, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Productive thinking, Jonathan.

    Many years ago I volunteered extensively with the Oregon Environmental Council, served briefly on the board of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (had to head to California to get a decent-paying job), whence I observed Henry Richmond, also a member of that board, split off 1000 Friends of Oregon. Necessary and effective organizations all.

    Point: it is natural for non-profit advocacy groups to ramify, as it is for all nonlinear, discrete, iterative systems. Those who say BTA should be Oregon’s state-wide agency, with a new group focusing on Portland, are right.

    Joe would be wasted state-wide, but would be dynamite locally. Mia has built a tremendous national organization, and we need her to continue enlarging that. David is way too diffident and sarcastic: he eschewed a chance to rename Southeast Gertrude Stein-Langlitz Boulevard by not running for Mayor last election.

    I would nominate Candi Murray, if I did not need her for my staff when I am elected Mayor. (Joke–the Mayor part.)

    I never joined BTA, because they do not need the likes of me. OBRA is a different matter: where else can one ride a 500 meter time-trial one week and cyclocross the next? Both fixed, of course. What our fair cycling city needs is a fanatic fixie commuting advocacy group. I would join such in a pedal-stroke–a third more powerful than the wussy freewheel ones, by the way, because of the scleronomous/rheonomous dichotomy of their respective analytical constraints, as evinced by hodographic representations.

    Archibald Sharp rules!

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  • Mark Allyn December 10, 2009 at 11:57 am

    J, why not you?

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  • Brian E. December 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    I think Kris Schamp is worth a mention. Great organizer and he has local ties.

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  • el timito December 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Whoever gets chosen, they better watch their back.
    Otherwise I might go saying nice things about Portland’s bike-worthiness in front of crowds again.

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  • Joe Biel December 10, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    oh, and timo, your presentation with david byrne ruled. you gotta ignore the haters!

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  • Randy Neufeld December 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks for the nice reference.

    I think it is interesting that you did not mention the extraordinary talented leaders at the country’s top state and city bicycle advocacy groups. Even if they aren’t candidates for a move, they are the best models:
    Paul White, Transportation Alternatives, NY City
    Leah Shahum, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
    Rob Sadowsky, Active Transportation Alliance, Chicago
    Eric Gilliland, Washington(DC) Area Bicycle Association
    Dan Grunndig, Bicycle Colorado

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor-in-Chief) December 10, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions Randy,

    I agree those are great folks who might be excellent candidates. I couldn’t list everyone (nor was that my intention). That being said, perhaps I’ll go back and add these names to a list below the blurb I wrote about you.

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  • Brad December 10, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Think outside of the box! Get a proven top notch director / business leader from outside the bike bubble. Ideally, someone who can manage an organization with great efficiency, fresh ideas, and will let those with the most passion and knowledge of bike issues do the dirty work of advocacy and lobbying.

    No offense intended but often advocates for any cause tend to get caught up in conventional group think that can stunt growth or block innovative thinking. Bringing in a marketing focused CEO type or someone with a stellar track record of advocacy for related non-bike issues like public health or social justice may prove more effective than another retread from a bike / transportation organization that has essentially the same views and opinions as her predecessor.

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  • Kris S December 10, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    Brian E #11: I think you got me mixed up with Brad Ross… I’m sure he who would bring some punch an spark to the BTA!

    Seriously though, I think we can all come up with a shortlist of people we think might be qualified or passionate to lead the BTA, but it’s really up to the BTA’s Board of Directors. It sounds like they are pretty serious about finding a top-notch leader and I hope they will find someone who can carry the organization to the next level. At last year’s Alice Awards, Scott stated that the BTA like to grow from 5,000 to 20,000 members in the next couple years, so it’s clear that the next Executive Director will have his/her work cut out just on that front alone.

    In addition, I hope they find someone who has the managerial skills to lead and cheer on the wonderful group of BTA staffers and who is able to curb the high personnel turn-over, which seems almost endemic of late. Finally, I hope that they find someone who stands on his/her own legs and can keep the board (and other influential BTA supporters) at arm’s length when it comes to running and leading the organization and driving its agenda. Obviously, not a small order.

    BTW: “The smile that helped launch cycling in Portland.” Now there’s a caption all of us should be envious about!

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  • Steve B. December 11, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Andy Dyson, E.D. of Neighborhood Bike Works in Philly. He’d be missed there, but he’s got the right balance of charm, charisma, and experience to get it done!

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  • David Bragdon December 11, 2009 at 7:09 am

    Poyourow for Governor!

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  • Carolyn Helmke December 11, 2009 at 7:22 am

    Can you at least *try* to find a candidate who isn’t white? Thanks for putting some women on the list, that’s a start.

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  • bob December 11, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Carolyn #20
    Just a reminder that the three current directors and the board chair are all women. Their 75% ratio of leaderly whititude is not as high as the state population or the membership that funds the BTA. I am sure they will seek somebody capable of doing the job first with concern for skin color somewhere down around the importance level of innie vs outie.
    You starbellied sneetches think you know it all, don’t you?

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  • Michael December 11, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Hey Bragdon:

    Don’t you have something better to do than post blog replies? Get to work.

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  • AaronF December 11, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Is Tre Arrow busy?

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  • Jim Middaugh December 11, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Tom Miller should do it. Of you stay too long @ City Hall you get the urge to compromise. Oh, and didn’t Catherine Ciarlo do a good job?

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  • Outside the box December 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I vote Rick Potestio – born and raised in our fair city, founder of the Cross Crusade cyclocross series, reknowned social critic, and formerly owned and operated his own archtictural firm. The people already in the system just aren’t getting it done – if you want a more agressive stance, pick someone with the palmares to do it!

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  • Daniel Ronan December 13, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    What struck me reading this article was Chicago’s “Active Transportation Alliance.” As the BTA is trying to figure out its new identity as an advocacy organization, I wonder if the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and the BTA have thought about possibly merging missions.

    To me, a merger at this juncture would make sense. As we seek to lobby for bicycle and pedestrian funding from the state legislature and city council, does it really make sense for us to pit those who bike and those who walk (everyone!) against each other?

    I think a merger would occur inevitably due to the fact that many concerns for bikes and pedestrians can be addressed with solutions that address both modes at once. For example, including bike lanes on the Morrison bridge has freed up sidewalk space for walkers as well as increased capacity for bicycle use on the bridge.

    Lastly, I think the perception of a unified Active Transportation Alliance could bring other modes of transportation into the mix, such as runners, skateboarders, scooters, and even those in wheelchairs, broadening access to the Rose City for all.

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  • Lynne F December 14, 2009 at 12:36 am

    no names to suggest, but a mention that the BTA is bigger than Portland, and should act accordingly. Or, as I see it, the BTA is Portland, and then the rest of Oregon, except Washington County.

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  • […] Sadowski had been among those listed as candidates by BikePortland in […]

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