(Photos © J. Maus)
Here’s the first of my 2010 recap posts (stay tuned for recaps of advocacy, projects, and big ideas). I held this one until after the holidays because I didn’t want to be a downer (the next ones will be mostly happy stuff, I promise!). Unfortunately, the fact is that — in terms of mayoral politics and its relationship to Portland in general — bicycling had a rough year. So rough that Mayor Sam Adams, who is largely tied to bicycling, now seems to have distanced himself from it.
If Portland wants to get its groove back (find out how we’ve lost it below), we must figure out how to bring our mayor back from the brink. If you don’t agree with my assertions, see the recap below…
Looking back, the first week of 2010 should have been taken as an omen that it would be a tough year for bicycling in Portland.
On January 8th, the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) released their annual bike counts which showed the first decline since 1995. PBOT blamed the 7 percent dip on two things; the abnormal spike in bike trips in 2008 spurred by high gas prices, and that perhaps we had hit a ceiling of who’s willing to use our existing (and underdeveloped) bike infrastructure.
Adding salt to the wound of our first decline in 15 years was Willamette Week reporter Beth Slovic. Slovic (whose paper broke the story about Mayor Sam Adams’ sex scandal in January 2009 and seems perturbed that it didn’t knock him out of office), published emails between PBOT staffers which she claimed were proof they were trying to spin the bad news. Was PBOT’s handling of the bike counts behind Slovic’s efforts, or was it that the counts were simply a convenient avenue by which to criticize Adams’ competency (since PBOT is his bureau)?
In February, after years of prodigious effort by volunteers, city staff, and advocates, the Bike Plan for 2030 finally passed. It’s an amazing plan and represents the most thoughtful and comprehensive such plan for urban biking ever produced (in my opinion). But, the celebration was to be very short-lived.
Adams’ plan to “kickstart” the bike plan with $20 million from the Bureau of Environmental Services budget to fund bike-friendly bioswales caught everyone off guard (probably because it was announced the same day the plan came up for a vote). Despite its fiscal and practical merits, the idea became fodder for intense criticism, spawning the “sewer money for bike lanes” meme that still hangs around the neck of bicycling to this day.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the local media also constantly portrayed the bike plan passage as a $600 million expenditure that the City couldn’t afford. (This reached its height with the Mercury’s Blood in the Bike Paths editorial.) The bike plan price tag was thrown around like Mayor Adams had written out a $600 million check for bike infrastructure — but the reality was that the plan was completely unfunded.
The coverage (I don’t think one local media outlet got it right) was irresponsible and inaccurate, but it made for a great sound bite, and unfortunately — even almost a year later — it continues to resonate with the public.
If you’re keeping track, that’s already three bike PR debacles, and the year was still in its infancy…
In April, we got the announcement by Bicycling Magazine that Portland was no longer America’s #1 city for bikes. Regardless of the influence or lack of scientific rigor behind Bicycling’s rankings (and their obvious need to create a stir to sell magazines) the decision wasn’t completely without merit. On paper (in terms of mode split and infrastructure miles), Portland is still the leader, but we’re not out in front by as much as we used to be and there’s definitely a sense that we’ve lost our groove.
In August, Metro President David Bragdon (who was a stalwart supporter of bicycling and a visionary for a new transportation status quo) decided to jump ship and take a job in New York City’s planning department. On his way out, he landed a few stinging blows on his Portland colleagues, telling the Portland Mercury, “There’s a complacency here that’s really detrimental to our forward progress.” Ouch.
With bicycling in Portland on the ropes, and a Mayor (who is, for better or for worse, largely tied to bicycling in the public eye) still fighting off a major scandal in 2009, it was a perfect storm for bad bicycling PR…
In May, KATU-TV ran an “investigation” of the new buffered bike lanes on SE Holgate in East Portland that was titled, Bike path to nowhere. The segment questioned whether the lanes were even necessary and threw around the “$600 million bike plan” figure even though the project was done with a $30,000 grant from TriMet.
The KATU piece helped spur some latent anger in the neighborhoods around Holgate; and soon, PBOT had a tempest on their hands that they’re still dealing with. (This issue is set to start up again soon, stay tuned.)
In June, Mayor Adams attended the BTA’s Alice Awards event and spoke about his frustrations and all the negative push-back he was getting for his support of bicycling. He told the crowd that his office had gotten a lot of feedback from his $20 million bike plan kickstart idea — and that 97 percent of it had been negative. He made it clear that he needs more support from advocacy groups and the community.
His speech at the Alice Awards was Adams’ first clear signal that his ability and willingness to put his neck on the line for bicycling was waning. It was also the last time we’d see him attend a major bike advocacy event or address bicycle policy in a direct and public way.
The one small biking bright spot of the year for Adams was a Safe Routes to Schools event in June. To recognize bike safety program graduates at Humboldt Elementary School, Adams hopped on his Sanyo e-bike and bombed down a grassy hill at Overlook Park alongside a teacher — much to the students’ delight.
But cute kids on bikes and a masterful photo-op wasn’t enough to stop yet another instance of bicycles being used as a way to criticize Adams. Who can forget John Canzano’s swipe at cycling back in September? In his award-winning sports column for The Oregonian, Canzano tore into Adams and “those silly bike lanes” in the “$613 million” bike plan. That column earned headlines and it earned Canzano a phone call from Mayor Adams, who called in to Canzano’s weekly radio show to defend himself.
It seemed like Adams and his transportation bureau just couldn’t catch a break.
Adams cut the ribbon on the $17.8 million East Burnside Couch Couplet in October, but not after dealing with some anger from the BTA and others and concerns about bike safety on the project. To make matters worse, the morning after PBOT announced a new bike box at NE Couch and Grand, a woman riding in the bike lane was seriously injured in a right hook collision.
The Canzano episode, followed by the bike safety fixes on the Burnside-Couch project, seemed like the straws that broke the camel’s back for Adams and his willingness to put bicycling front and center (at least publicly). Since then, he seems to be avoiding the issue. In fact, he’s been strangely quiet about it.
In November, PBOT announced that their count of bike trips in 2010 increased 8 percent over the 2009 numbers. Mayor Adams has led PBOT for six years and is widely known as a bike-friendly mayor, but he made no public mention of the numbers. His office did not issue a press advisory about them, and he didn’t even mention the bike counts via Twitter.
I realize transportation isn’t as important as the police bureau, our troubled schools, economic development, or all the other issues on Adams’ plate; but I can’t help but think he’s once bitten, twice shy when it comes to bicycling.
To truly make bicycling a “fundamental pillar” (as per the 2030 Bike Plan) of our transportation system in 2011, Adams must play a central role. The question is, how do we bring him back into the fold?
After thinking more about this story and reading feedback below, I realize I’ve left out a crucial bit of my perspective on this situation. It’s important to understand Adams’ role in creating the situation he is now retreating from. To clarify, the PR debacles and much of the media firestorms that have resulted in a lack of public support and a lot of criticism leveled on bicycling, is primarily due to mistakes made by PBOT and by the Mayor’s Office. The bike plan “kickstart” funding idea was hastily conceived and poorly communicated, the Holgate bike lane situation would have been much more productive if PBOT had given the neighbors proper notification about the project, the Burnside-Couch bike problem should also have been foreseen. So, while I have much more analysis as to why Portland is in a bicycling funk right now — and about the role Mayor Adams, the BTA, and PBOT have played in it — I wanted to at least share this important part of my perspective. Thanks for all the feedback below. We can’t move forward until we identify the problems we face.